It’s flu season – what cancer patients should know

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Cancer patients are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to contagious diseases like the flu. Even otherwise healthy people are left miserable by the flu, but it can be extremely agonizing for people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients.

Flu season is at its worst December through February, but starts as soon as early fall. Most people affected by a case of the flu recover within a couple of weeks at home on their own. However, cancer patients are at an increased risk of complications from the flu, and need to take flu season seriously.

For cancer patients, the biggest concern is the high risk of serious complications if they do get the flu. Not only that, but often in those with weakened immune systems, the flu doesn’t always present itself with the traditional set of symptoms like fever, muscle aches and chills. If you have a compromised immune system because of cancer and start experiencing any flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat or coughing — and especially a fever — see a doctor immediately.

There are a few common-sense things you can do to decrease your likelihood of catching the flu, such as:

  1. Avoid crowded places during flu season. This doesn’t mean you have to become a hermit all winter, just use common sense. If you must make a trip to the store, don’t go on a Saturday afternoon when it’s most packed. Chose a time where it won’t be as busy.
  2. Wash your hands. We can’t say this enough – and if soap and water isn’t handy, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel.
  3. Get a flu shot. We understand this can be a scary thought, but it’s important. According to the CDC, “People with cancer or a history of cancer should receive the seasonal flu shot. People who live with or care for cancer patients and survivors also should be vaccinated against seasonal flu.”
  4. If you think you’ve been exposed, call your doctor. The CDC also says, “If you have received cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy within the last month, or have a blood or lymphatic form of cancer, call your doctor immediately if you have been within six feet (1.8m) of someone known or suspected to have the flu. Your doctor may give you antiviral drugs to help prevent the flu. If you have cancer and have not received treatment within the last month, or you have had cancer in the past but are cancer-free now, and you have had close contact with someone known or suspected to have the flu, call your doctor and ask if you should receive antiviral drugs.

With some planning, it’s possible to avoid the flu and any complications, even while undergoing cancer treatment.