I have a chronic condition, is my immune system ready for the flu?

We are currently amid the flu season, do you know if you are more at risk of the flu than the average person? You are likely to be if you have a long-term health condition such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, or respiratory problems(1). Why? These conditions make you more likely to catch the flu or develop flu-related complications. The flu can also worsen your existing chronic health condition(2).

How does your immune system respond to the flu?

Influenza is a virus that causes mainly respiratory symptoms(3). The virus functions by entering your body and traveling to your respiratory tract and takes over the epithelial cells that lines your trachea(4). The virus then uses these epithelial cells to manufacture its own viral proteins and release them to infect more and more cells in your body(5). Your immune system, your body’s defense system(6), responds to influenza’s hostile takeover of the epithelial cells by producing a type of white blood cells called T cells, which specifically recognises the influenza virus protein(7). The T cells then get to work fighting the virus by killing the virus-infected cells, and incidentally causing damage to your respiratory system(8).   

For the average person, this damage is temporary and reversible(9) and your T cells will successfully clear the influenza virus from your body within two weeks(10). However, when you have a chronic health condition, your immune system is weaker than that of the average person, so it may take longer for you to fight off the infection(11)(12) and recover from the damage. This is of particular concern, as while your immune system is ‘distracted’ fighting the influenza virus, you can contract another infection, such as pneumonia, at the same time. Other serious flu-related complications people with chronic health conditions are at risk of include inflammation of the heart (myocadrditis, leading to heart failure), brain (encephalitis), and multiple organ failure(13).

Protecting yourself this flu season

Without medical care, flu-related complications can be life-threatening(14), so it is important for you to take precautions against the flu. In addition to washing your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, getting the flu vaccination is the most effective way for people with chronic health conditions to protecting themselves from the flu(15). If you have an existing chronic condition, it is vital that you consult your doctor about getting the flu vaccination.



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