Why the flu season is particularly challenging for people with disabilities

Home stories Why the flu season is particularly challenging for people with disabilities

Why the flu season is particularly challenging for people with disabilities

Winter brings with it a wealth of hazards, particularly when you’re living with disabilities. While freezing temperatures making pathways treacherous may be your most obvious challenge, there are others less apparent ones that need you to take an equal amount of care – especially with the arrival of the flu season.

Living with a condition that limits your ability to function – whether it’s your physical or cognitive capacity, or even both – means you’re more likely than others to catch the flu or for your illness to go unrecognised (1). Added to that, your disability may put you at higher risk of your flu progressing to more severe complications, such as pneumonia.

So, why do your disabilities mean you need to take extra care when it comes to the flu?

Physical disabilities and the flu

Physical disabilities are wide-ranging, but if you’re someone whose mobility is limited, you may be at great risk of catching the flu. While, on the one hand, you may not be able to avoid coming in contact with an infected person; on the other, you may find it difficult to practice flu prevention measures, such as washing your hands thoroughly (1).

Physical disabilities can also affect how well your body fights off infection. Your condition might affect your immune system, which controls how well your body fights off infections, including chronic and respiratory diseases (1).

Some specific types of physical disability bring with them their own very individual challenges. If you have a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, you might find breathing or regulating your body temperature difficult (2). Some children, in particular, with neurological conditions may have trouble coughing, swallowing or clearing fluids from their airways (3), making flu symptoms worse.

The flu can also inflame your underlying condition. Catching the flu would make breathing even harder for you, putting you at increased risk of severe illness and a stay in hospital (2). Equally, the flu may lead to you developing a high temperature if you find that difficult to regulate, which might exacerbate your condition and symptoms (2). One-third of people with multiple sclerosis who catch the flu have a relapse within six weeks (2).

Cognitive difficulties and the flu

Studies have also found people with learning difficulties, like those with neurological conditions, are at higher risk of respiratory illnesses (4) – and more likely than others to get seriously ill if they have the flu (5).

Learning difficulties, along with some neurological conditions, can also make communication difficult (2). These communication difficulties may put you at greater risk of catching the flu since you may struggle to understand preventative measures (1). You may be less likely than others to thoroughly wash your hands, protect yourself from coughs and sneezes or avoid people who are sick.

You might also have problems telling the people who care for you when you feel ill or if your illness gets worse, delaying treatment and making your illness and symptoms more severe (2)(4). Research has shown that delays or problems with treatment, or because of problems with assessing or investigating the cause of illness, can lead to more severe illness (4).

Whatever your disability, catching the flu can be more serious. Why not make getting an annual flu shot a priority – it would mean you have one less challenge to face as the temperature drops. 

(1) https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/disabilities/
(2) https://psnc.org.uk/avon-lpc/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2015/07/Neurological-Disease-and-Flu-Vaccine-Importance.pdf
(3) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/neurologic-pediatric.htm
(4) http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/cipold/migrated/documents/fullfinalreport.pdf
(5) https://www.ndti.org.uk/uploads/files/Flu_Injection_resource.pdf


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