Groups at High Risk for Dangerous Flu Complications

The flu is unpleasant for anyone. Fever, fatigue and coughing fits will knock even the healthiest person down. But certain groups of people are at higher risk for complications from the flu than others.

High-Risk Groups

The flu can be more than an inconvenience to these people. It can lead to things like pneumonia, bronchitis, hospitalization, and even death. Groups that are at high risk for complications from the flu include:

  • Children Younger Than 5, Especially Children Younger Than 2 Years Old: Children under the age of six months are too young to be vaccinated, so it is best that all people who come in contact with them are vaccinated. The vaccine is recommended for all children between the ages of six months and five years. Even in a mild flu year, about 7,000 children are hospitalized due to the flu, while in an epidemic flu year this number climbs to 26,000 children.
  • Pregnant Women and Those Up to Two Weeks Postpartum: Fever can cause negative outcomes for the developing fetus. Pregnant women are more likely to need hospitalization from flu illness and complications.
  • Adults Over the Age of 65: If you are in this age group, be sure you are up to date with pneumococcal vaccination as pneumococcal pneumonia is a complication of the flu and can lead to death. A high dose influenza vaccine is designed specifically for this age group and an adjuvanted flu vaccine, Fluad, is now available that is more effective than the regular vaccine.
  • Residents of Nursing Homes and Long-Term Care Facilities: This includes children as well as older residents.
  • Those With Chronic Health Conditions (Any Age): You are at increased risk when you have asthma, neurological or neurodevelopmental conditions (cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, intellectual disabilities, spinal cord injury, etc.), diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, liver disorders, or an immune system weakened due to cancer, HIV/AIDS, or by chronic steroid medications. People with extreme obesity are also at increased risk. For those with chronic health problems, the flu can lead to worsening of those conditions.
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives (Any Age): These groups appear to be at increased risk.

Complications of Influenza

What are the complications you might get from a bout of influenza? The CDC lists these:

  • Sinus infections and ear infections are moderate complications of influenza.
  • Pneumonia may develop from the flu virus itself or be caused by other viruses or bacteria when you are weakened by the flu. Pneumonia can be deadly, especially for those who are in the risk groups for influenza complications.
  • Inflammation can affect the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis), and muscles.
  • Multi-organ failure, including kidney failure and respiratory failure.
  • Sepsis, an infection in the bloodstream.
  • Asthma attacks in those who have asthma.
  • Worsening of chronic heart disease.

Treatment

If you contract the flu and fall into one of the above high-risk groups, your doctor will likely prescribe treatment with antiviral medications. Not only can these drugs lessen symptoms and reduce the time you're sick by one or two days, they can also affect the difference between mild illness and serious complications that warrant a hospital stay.

How to Avoid the Complications of Influenza

The best way to avoid the flu is by getting a flu shot every year. Everyone in these high-risk groups should be vaccinated with a flu shot, not the nasal spray flu vaccine. If you can't get a flu shot, do your best to ensure those around you are vaccinated and talk to your healthcare provider about starting antiviral medications if you are exposed to the flu.

A Word From Verywell

The flu can be very serious for anyone, not just everyone included in the above list. It's more than just a bad cold; the flu claims the lives of thousands of people every year, even those who were previously healthy. Do what you can to avoid this serious illness.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza (flu). Treatment. April 22, 2019.

Additional Reading