Understanding how the flu impacts chronic diseases

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Understanding how the flu impacts chronic diseases

The flu is always unpleasant, but it is usually mild, and most people recover quickly. However, it can occasionally cause severe disease or death (1).

The people at greatest risk of serious complications of the flu are people over 65: eight out of ten flu-related deaths are in this age group. This is partly because their immune system has become less effective in fighting infections with age, but also because the flu may worsen heart problems, diabetes, chronic liver or kidney disease or a lung disorder (1).

In an earlier article, we looked at how chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer mean we’re more likely than our juniors to become seriously ill if we catch the flu. Let’s continue examining how our health conditions affect the flu and, indeed, what impact the flu may have on our health conditions.

Liver disease

People with chronic liver disease are particularly at risk from the flu; it may even worsen chronic liver disease and be fatal (1).

Chills, fever, nasal and sinus congestion, sore throat and extreme fatigue are all common symptoms of the flu. But if you have liver disease, the flu could develop into something more serious, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, which in rare cases can also be fatal (2).

Kidney disease

For those people who have chronic kidney disease, fighting off infections is much harder and can lead to problems with other organs in your body (3). The risk is much greater than for people who are normally fit and healthy. Some of these complications can be life threatening. Evidence suggests that people with chronic kidney disease are 19 times more likely to die from flu complications than a person who is healthy (3).

If you have had a kidney transplant or are waiting for one, you are more at risk of developing complications if you catch the flu. But if you have the flu when a kidney becomes available, you may not be well enough to have the transplant operation (3).

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

People with immunodeficiency diseases, including HIV, are among high-risk groups for complications, hospitalisation and premature deaths from the flu (4). They may also be more likely to contract the flu, and their illness is more likely to be severe and their symptoms more likely to last for longer (5).

Autoimmune diseases

The immune system protects the body from infectious diseases by targeting and destroying any potential threat to the body, such as bacteria or viruses. In inflammatory arthritis – such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus – the immune system also targets other healthy parts of the body, particularly the joints, leading to pain and reduced joint movement (6).

To prevent this, doctors can prescribe treatments that suppress the immune system called disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS). These DMARDs prevent the immune system breaking down joints, thus reducing symptoms. However, this suppression can also make the immune system less able to fight infections, making people receiving these treatments more likely to catch flu (6).

Mind your medications

And don’t forget to ask your doctor for advice if you’re thinking of taking any over-the-counter medicines or herbal supplement to treat flu symptoms. You can’t use some medications that relieve the symptoms of flu if you’re already taking other medicines.

(1) http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/communicable-diseases/pages/news/news/2015/10/no-to-influenza-vaccination-costs-thousands-of-lives
(2) https://www.britishlivertrust.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/get-the-jab/
(3) http://psnc.org.uk/avon-lpc/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2015/07/Chronic-Kidney-Disease-and-Flu-Vaccine-Importance.pdf
(4) http://www.who.int/hiv/mediacentre/influenza_hiv.pdf
(5) https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/32/9/1366/292070/Influenza-and-Human-Immunodeficiency-Virus
(6) http://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/research/grant-tracker-items/2016/is-the-seasonal-flu-vaccine-effective-in-preventing-flu-and-its-complications-in-arthritis-patients.aspx


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