Fighting the flu: possible complications to look out for

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Fighting the flu: possible complications to look out for

Most people who get the flu just have a mild illness that lasts for a week or two. But things change as the years pass by. Our immune systems become weaker with age and we’re more likely to suffer from long-lasting medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, for instance.

With that, our bodies find it harder and harder to fight the flu. That means we’re more likely to suffer complications(1) – and more likely to be hospitalised because of them(2).

Be aware of possible complications

From time to time the flu can become more severe, either because of the virus itself or because of a secondary, usually bacterial, infection(3). After all, the flu can sometimes weaken your lungs, making it easier for a bacterial infection to take hold(4).

Bacterial chest infections such as bronchitis are the most common complication we’re likely to experience from the flu(5). Occasionally, this infection can become serious. It can develop into pneumonia, an infection of the lungs(6). Very occasionally, pneumonia can become life-threatening.

While bronchitis and pneumonia are the most common complications, you may also be unfortunate enough to experience other serious complications(7):

  • Inflammation of the tonsils (tonsillitis)
  • An infection of the middle ear (otitis media)
  • Inflammation of the lining of the sinuses (sinusitis)
  • An infection in the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)

Your doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics(8), which will usually cure a chest infection or pneumonia. Nevertheless, if you’re worried about your flu symptoms, seek medical advice.

The flu also can affect chronic health conditions

People with lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may find that their symptoms become more severe when they get the flu(9).

In people with diabetes, the flu can affect blood sugar levels(10). Your blood sugar levels might become dangerously high or, in people with type 1 diabetes, your insulin levels dangerously low(11). If you have the flu, monitor your blood sugar level more closely because flu symptoms can mask the symptoms of high or low blood sugar levels(12).

If you have a heart condition and are taking warfarin, flu like symptoms can affect your blood clotting rate (INR) (13). Speak to your doctor or anticoagulation nurse about monitoring your INR.

It’s always wise to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking over-the-counter medicines if you have a long term health condition. Medicines that relieve flu symptoms such as painkillers or cough medicines could potentially affect your condition or may not be suitable when you are taking prescribed medicines(14)(15).

(5), (6), (7), (8), (9),(11)
(10), (12), (14)
(13), (15)


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