Asthma. Diabetes. Crohn's disease. Cerebral palsy. If you're one of the millions of American teens with a medical condition, you probably follow your health management plan, take medications if you need them, and think of yourself as healthy. So why worry about something as basic as the flu?
People with medical conditions — even those who feel healthy most of the time — are more at risk of having complications when they get infections like colds and flu. With the new strain of H1N1 flu (aka "swine flu") in the picture, doctors recommend that some kids and teens take extra precautions.
Who Is Most At Risk?
The following people need to call a doctor as soon as they notice signs of the flu (even if it's something as simple as a sore throat or runny nose):
- people with conditions that can cause breathing trouble such as asthma or cystic fibrosis, or conditions that require using oxygen or a ventilator
- people who take steroid medications over long periods of time for disorders like Crohn's disease, lupus, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and nephrotic syndrome
- people with congenital heart disease
- people with metabolic or endocrine disorders, such as diabetes
- people with cancer, HIV, or other diseases that weaken the immune system
- people with neurological disorders like epilepsy, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy
- pregnant women
What Can You Do to Avoid the Flu?
People who have medical conditions can lessen their chances of getting the flu by taking the same steps that work for everyone:
- Wash your hands well and often. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when you don't have access to soap and water.
- Get your flu shots. The vaccine against H1N1 flu is different from the regular seasonal vaccine, so get both. People with medical conditions will most likely need the shot, not the nasal mist. That's because the mist may not work as well as the shot, and can cause problems for some people with medical conditions.
- Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Stand back from people who are coughing or sneezing — at least 6 feet if you can. Or cover your face with a scarf or sleeve when someone around you coughs or sneezes (not foolproof, but it can help).
- Strengthen your immune system by eating well, exercising as much as you are able, and getting plenty of sleep.
A few people with more serious medical conditions may need to take extra precautions, such as staying out of school when a lot of other students are sick. Your doctor is the best person to ask for advice on this, since he or she knows your individual situation.
If you have a medical condition, the most important thing to remember is: Don't wait! Call your doctor at the first sign of flu — even if you feel fine. Your doc may want to prescribe medications designed to treat the flu. These medications work best if the flu is caught early since they interfere with the virus's ability to reproduce and spread.
Does this mean that people with medical conditions will get seriously ill if they catch flu? Definitely not. Most people won't have any problems, even when they have another illness. But since flu can get serious fast if a person has additional health problems, it's best to be prepared.
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD, and Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2009