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Treating the Flu in People with Health Risks

Treating Influenza (Flu) in People with Health or Age Factors That Increase Their Risk of Complications

Treating the flu in people with health risks facts*

*Treating the flu in people with health risks facts medical author: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

  • People with chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes and chronic heart disease are more frequently hospitalized if they get the flu.
  • Such individuals get more complications of the flu like pneumonia often due to a depressed immune system.
  • The flu can be treated with antiviral drugs.
  • People who think they have the flu should check immediately with their doctor if they have high risk health conditions.
  • High risk persons should still get the vaccine because it is the best defense against the flu; antivirals are the second line of defense.
  • Antiviral drugs may lessen symptoms, shorten the time of illness and may prevent complications of the flu.
  • Side effects of antiviral drugs include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, cough, diarrhea, headache and possibly behavioral changes.
  • Antiviral drugs work best when started within two days of onset of symptoms; after two days, the drugs may be helpful in people with high risk conditions or people very sick with the flu.
  • CDC-recommended antivirals are oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (brand name Relenza®); zanamivir should not be used if the person has a breathing problem.
  • Antivirals are usually taken for 5 days, but hospitalized patients may be treated longer.
  • Children and pregnant women can take the antivirals.
  • Antiviral drugs should be taken by people with high risk conditions and hospitalized patients with the flu.
  • Health and age factors that increase flu risk include the following: asthma, blood disorders, heart disease, lung disease, kidney problems, liver problems, metabolic disorders, neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders, COPD, Immune system disorders (HIV, AIDS, cancers, chronic steroid use), Adults aged 65 and older, children younger than 2 years, pregnant women, women up to 2 weeks from end of pregnancy, American Indians and Alaska Natives

Do you have Asthma, Diabetes or Chronic Heart Disease?

If so, you are at high risk of serious illness if you get the flu. In past flu seasons, as many as 80 percent of adults hospitalized from flu complications had a long-term health condition; as did about 50 percent of hospitalized children. Asthma, diabetes and chronic heart disease were the most common of these. This fact sheet provides information about treating influenza in high risk people with prescription influenza antiviral drugs. Treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.

Why am I at greater risk of serious flu complications?

Your medical condition makes it more likely that you will get complications from the flu, like pneumonia. The flu also can make long-term health problems worse, even if they are well managed. People with asthma or chronic congestive heart failure may experience worsening of these conditions. Diabetes (type 1 and 2) can make the immune system less able to fight the flu. Also, illness can raise blood sugar levels.

Can the flu be treated?

Yes. There are prescription medications called "antiviral drugs" that can be used to treat influenza illness. Antiviral drugs fight influenza viruses in your body. They are different from antibiotics, which fight against bacterial infections.


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