Every year, about 8% of people in the U.S. get the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the flu can make anyone sick regardless of their age or health, some people are more at risk of serious flu complications.
Getting the seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu and reduce the risk of serious complications. If possible, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated in September or October for optimal coverage during flu season.
Here’s what else you need to know about who’s most at risk from the flu and how to protect them.
Infants and young children
Because their immune system isn’t fully developed, children under age 5 face a higher risk of serious flu complications. To protect them, follow these steps.
- Get vaccinated while you’re breastfeeding. The vaccine helps you develop antibodies that you can pass onto your baby while breastfeeding, according to the CDC.
- Get your baby vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. Infants can get a flu vaccine as early as 6 months old. If they become eligible partway through flu season, it still helps to get them vaccinated.
- Make sure all household members or close contacts of babies are vaccinated, including siblings, grandparents, and any caregivers.
Your immune system changes during pregnancy. Getting a fever during pregnancy can harm a developing baby. It’s been linked to neural tube defects and other adverse outcomes. To protect yourself and your unborn baby from the flu during pregnancy:
- Get the flu vaccine. According to the CDC, the flu vaccine reduces a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized with the flu by about 40%. The vaccine you get also protects your newborn baby during the first few months of life, before they are eligible for a vaccine.
- Make sure all household members gets the flu shot as well.
People aged 65+
As you get older, your immune system doesn’t work as well as it used to, so it has a harder time fighting off the flu.
An estimated 70% to 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people age 65 and older, according to the CDC.
If you’re 65 or older, the CDC recommends that you get a high-dose flu vaccine or an adjuvanted flu vaccine. Ask your pharmacist which flu vaccine they recommend for you.
People with chronic health conditions
If you have a chronic medical condition — even if you’re younger than 65 — getting the flu can make these conditions worse. Some of the most common conditions made worse by the flu include:
- Asthma and lung disease. Even in people whose asthma is well controlled, the flu can worsen airway and lung inflammation. Children and adults who have asthma are more likely to develop pneumonia after getting the flu.
- Diabetes. The flu can make it harder for you to control your blood sugar levels. About 30% of adults hospitalized with the flu have diabetes.
- Heart disease and stroke. Half of the adults who end up in the hospital because of the flu have heart disease, and having the flu can also increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
How to protect yourself and others
Along with getting a seasonal flu vaccine, the CDC recommends that you do the following to protect yourself and those around you:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces and objects if you or someone in your household is sick.
- Stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without using fever-reducing medication.
What to do if you do get the flu?
Get tested ASAP. Your local pharmacy or doctor can help with the testing. There are several prescription medications available to treat higher-risk people with the flu, but you need to start them within 48 hours of when the symptoms appear.