Why chronic diseases can put you at higher risk from the flu

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Why chronic diseases can put you at higher risk from the flu

Let’s face it, we are not as young as we used to be and we’re more likely to suffer from chronic diseases. These health conditions mean we have higher chances than our juniors to become seriously ill if we catch the flu (1). We’re more likely to experience complications such as pneumonia and even to be hospitalised.

Let’s take a look at how our health conditions affect the flu and, indeed, what impact the flu may have on our health conditions.

Heart disease

Heart disease may leave your body too weak to fight off the flu, increasing your risk of experiencing flu-related complications, such as pneumonia (2). On the other side of the coin, the flu can also make your heart disease worse, increasing your risk of a heart attack (2).

Heart attacks are more likely during or immediately after a bout of the flu (3). Why? Because the flu prevents you from taking in oxygen as efficiently as you need to. This means your heart needs to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood through your body (4).

The flu can also affect your blood clotting rate (INR) (3), so monitor your blood clotting rate more closely while you’re not feeling well.


If you have diabetes, the flu might affect your blood sugar levels and put you at risk of serious complications (5), particularly if your flu leads to an infection (6).

If you have type 2 diabetes, you might develop hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar). If you have type 1 diabetes, you might develop either hyperglycaemia or diabetic ketoacidosis – a potentially life-threatening condition caused by a lack of insulin in your body.

Whichever type of diabetes you have, if you take insulin, monitor your blood sugar level more closely while you’re not feeling well (5).


For anyone suffering from asthma, if you do catch the flu, asthma means your flu symptoms may be more severe. This is because you already have swollen and sensitive airways (7).

The flu itself can also worsen your asthma symptoms by causing further inflammation and narrowing of the airways (8). This may even trigger an asthma attack (7).

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

If you have COPD (such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis), your flu symptoms are likely to be more severe and you’re also at greater risk of developing an infection in your airways (9).

The damaged airways in your lungs mean you already have some difficulty breathing. A combination of the flu and COPD can make it even harder for you to breathe, only worsening as your cough gets more frequent and more severe and any mucus gets thicker and increases in volume. The airway obstruction and your difficulty coughing up infected mucus may even lead to bacterial infections such as pneumonia (10).

When it comes to treating your flu symptoms, use decongestants with caution. Ask your doctor for advice as some of the drugs you might be taking might raise your heart rate and decongestants can increase blood pressure (10).


Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can weaken your immune system, increasing your risk of developing both the flu and complications from the flu (11). And if you do catch the flu and are feeling unwell, you might not be able to attend appointments, delaying your treatment (12).

Mind your medications

When it comes to treating your flu symptoms, you might want to take an over-the-counter medicine or a herbal supplement. Ask your doctor for advice as some medications to relieve the symptoms of flu can’t be used when taking prescribed medicines.

(1) http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/flu-chronic-conditions
(2) https://www.vaccines.gov/more_info/features/heartdisease-flu.html
(3) https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/living-with-a-heart-condition/weather-and-your-heart/seasonal-influenza
(4) http://www.webmd.boots.com/cold-and-flu/flu-guide/flu-chronic-conditions
(5) http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Flu/Pages/Complications.aspx
(6) https://www.diabetes.org.uk/seasonal-flu
(7) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/asthma/
(8) https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/colds-and-flu/
(9) http://www.europeanlung.org/assets/files/en/publications/vaccinationandlungdisease.pdf
(10) http://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/emphysema-chronic_bronchitis-colds
(11) http://www.everydayhealth.com/cold-flu-pictures/chronic-conditions-that-make-you-more-susceptible-to-the-flu.aspx
(12) https://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/about-us/news-blogs/news/im-having-treatment-breast-cancer-do-i-need-flu-jab


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