COVID-19 may still be top of mind — along with other virus-caused illnesses that are popping up, like monkeypox and polio — but health experts warn it’s just as important to guard against the regular seasonal flu this year, especially if you’re in a group that’s at higher risk for severe or deadly complications.
A big reason: Experts worry the flu season could be worse than normal this year, based on trends in the Southern Hemisphere.
“We always look to the Southern Hemisphere because they have winter during our summer, and Australia had a very substantial influenza season,” says William Schaffner, M.D., medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “There is not always a 1-to-1 correlation, but I’m concerned.”
And while anyone can have a bad bout of flu, certain groups are more likely to experience dangerous complications, ranging from pneumonia and dehydration to heart failure and death.
Here are seven common factors that put you at risk for a severe case of flu, and what you can do — beyond getting that all-important flu shot — to blunt, or eliminate, flu’s worst effects.
1. Risk factor: You’re age 65 or older
Older adults are the demographic most affected by both flu and COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 70 to 85 percent of flu-related deaths and up to 70 percent of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people 65 and older.
About half of adults age 65-plus also have a second risk factor that makes them vulnerable, according to National Foundation for Infectious Diseases estimates.
But even healthy older adults are at risk, because “your immune system simply is not as robust as it was when you were 25 years old,” Schaffner says.
In addition, typical flu symptoms don’t always show up in older adults, causing a delay in diagnosis and treatment.
“The most important symptom that may not be present in older people is fever,” Schaffner says. “People can develop a cough, feel weak, and they may even get confused, but they don’t have a fever, so family members don’t think they have the flu.”
2. Risk factor: You have heart disease or a history of stroke
Researchers in recent years have uncovered a concerning link between the flu and heart complications.