Cancer Patients and Influenza: What You Need to Know

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cancer flu coronavirus need to know

The COVID-19 pandemic has not replaced the risks posed by the seasonal flu. Learn why the influenza virus is particularly dangerous for cancer patients and how to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. 

With so much attention focused on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it can be easy for us to forget about the dangers posed by the seasonal flu, particularly for individuals diagnosed with chronic conditions such as cancer. Flu season begins in October and ends as late as May, with influenza viruses responsible for thousands of hospitalizations and deaths each year.

While being a cancer patient or survivor does not make a person more likely to catch the flu, it can increase their chances of developing some of the more severe complications associated with the illness. Here, we take a more in-depth look at flu-related symptoms and complications, as well as offer some guidance to help keep cancer patients and survivors and their loved ones safe during flu season.

Flu Symptoms and Complications: Information for Cancer Patients and Survivors

If you’ve been following the National Foundation for Cancer Research’s (NFCR) blog for a while now, you likely remember a post that we published in 2016, which detailed important information that every cancer patient and survivor should know about the flu. We reminded readers that having or surviving cancer does NOT put an individual at an increased risk for getting the flu; however, it does increase the person’s chances of developing complications, including:1

  • Dehydration (serious enough to require hospitalization)
  • Bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Worsened lung and heart conditions
  • Death

The flu spreads person-to-person through the droplets made when the people carrying the virus cough, sneeze, or talk. If you are a cancer patient or survivor who is experiencing any of the following flu-related symptoms, call your health care provider as soon as possible:2

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Fatigue

The symptoms associated with the flu are very similar to the symptoms associated with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will spread during the same time of the year.3 Your health care provider can determine what steps should be taken to get you the best care for your symptoms.

Your health care provider might have different practices for evaluating and treating flu symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Be sure to follow your provider and the CDC’s recommendations for doctor visits.3

Be Proactive: Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones Against the Flu

Health care providers and local and federal health agencies agree that the best way for individuals to protect themselves against the flu is by getting an annual flu vaccine. Vaccination against the flu is recommended for all individuals ages six months and older, including people who have been diagnosed with or survived cancer.4

Your health care provider can administer the vaccine. If you aren’t able to visit your health care provider, you can also get the vaccine at your local pharmacy. The vaccine is most effective when administered early in flu season — September or October — but getting vaccinated at any time is better than not getting vaccinated at all.1

In addition to getting vaccinated, the CDC recommends that all individuals take the following preventive actions to help reduce the spread of bacteria and viruses, including influenza viruses:2

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available)
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with viruses

COVID-19 may spread faster and cause more severe symptoms than the flu, but the dangers posed by this seasonal illness remain very real. If you are a cancer patient or survivor, you are at an increased risk for developing serious complications from the flu. Take steps to get yourself and your loved ones vaccinated today, and call your health care provider immediately if you experience any flu-like symptoms.

Additional Reads You May Enjoy:

Cancer: There’s An App for That (2020 Update)

Employment Rights for Cancer Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers

Deadly Decisions: COVID-19 or CANCER?

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References:

1 Van Hoey, N. (2018, September 06). How to Protect Yourself From the Flu During Cancer Treatment. Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://www.cancer.net/blog/2018-09/how-protect-yourself-flu-during-cancer-treatment

2 Influenza (Flu): Preventive Steps. (2020, September 25). Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/prevention.htm

3 Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2020-2021 Season. (2020, December 09). Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2020-2021.htm

4 What Cancer Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers Should Know About the Flu. (2020, October 27). Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/flu/basic-info.htm