Cancer, the Flu, & You

Cancer, the Flu, & You

Living with cancer increases your risk for complications from the flu. If you have cancer now or have had cancer in the past, you are at higher risk for complications from the seasonal flu (or influenza), including hospitalization and death.

Get Your Flu Shot!  

People with cancer or a history of cancer, and people who live with or care for cancer survivors, should get a seasonal flu shot. This is especially true for older cancer survivors. Immune defenses become weaker with age, which places older people at greater risk of severe illness from flu. Also, aging decreases the body’s ability to have a good immune response after getting a flu shot. Two vaccines are designed specifically for people 65 and older: 
• The high-dose flu vaccine has four times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot.
• The adjuvanted flu vaccine is designed to help create a stronger immune response to vaccination.

Many people who are at increased risk for flu are also at increased risk for pneumococcal disease. People with cancer or other diseases that compromise your immune system should ask their healthcare providers if pneumococcal shots are needed.

What to Do If You Get Sick  

Make a plan in advance with your doctor about what to do if you get sick. Flu-like symptoms also can be a sign of a very serious infection that is not the flu and could result in a hospital stay or even death. Your plan should explain when you should call your doctor and how to get a prescription for antiviral medication quickly if needed.

It’s important for people with cancer to notify their doctor immediately if they get a fever. If you have flu symptoms, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or for other necessities. Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine. Keep away from others as much as possible to avoid making them sick. 

Good health habits can help stop the flu from spreading. For example, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands often. 

Flu Treatment for Cancer Survivors  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends antiviral drugs to treat and prevent infection. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines that stop flu viruses from reproducing in your body. If you get sick, antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. It’s very important that antiviral drugs be used early. They may also prevent serious flu complications.

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If you have received cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy within the last month, have a blood or lymphatic form of cancer, or have had cancer in the past but are cancer-free now, call your doctor immediately if you have been within six feet of someone known or suspected to have the flu. Your doctor may give you antiviral drugs to help prevent the flu.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2018.