Flu symptoms like headaches, body aches and fatigue are unpleasant. But did you know that the flu virus could be deadly for high-risk individuals?

"Certain groups of people are at higher risk for an adverse reaction to the flu virus,"said Dr. Donna Ackerman of Horizon Pediatrics and close partner with North Suburban Medical Center. "Knowing the risk factors can help you determine if your symptoms are serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER."

Who Is at Risk?

Children under the age of five — and especially under the age of two — have weaker immune systems than adults and are particularly vulnerable to the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 20,000 children a year are hospitalized due to complications related to the flu.

Pregnant women
Women who are pregnant are also at a higher risk for complications relating to the flu virus due to changes in the immune system, heart and lungs. This increased risk continues up to two weeks postpartum. During pregnancy, the flu can cause complications like premature delivery.

Adults 65 and up
Older adults also have weaker immune systems and are particularly susceptible to complications from the flu virus. According to the CDC, 80 to 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in seniors over the age of 65.

People with medical conditions
Individuals with a preexisting condition can have a more difficult time recovering from the flu virus due to a compromised immune system. Certain conditions may make you more prone to complications like pneumonia, and having the flu can make preexisting health conditions that much worse. For example, infections like the flu make controlling blood sugar more challenging for patients with diabetes. Other conditions that may worsen from the virus are:

  • Asthma
  • Blood disorders
  • Neurological conditions
  • Liver and kidney disorders
  • Lung disease
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity

"If you have one of these preexisting medical conditions and start to experience flu-like symptoms, see your doctor right away," said Dr. Ackerman.

Do I Need Emergency Care?

"When you have the flu, it's normal to experience fever, chills, body aches, sore throat, headaches and fatigue for one to two weeks," said Dr. Ackerman. "For high-risk individuals, however, a more serious complication like pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, bronchitis and seizures may occur."

If you experience one or more of the below symptoms, talk to you doctor right away or go the ER:

  • Sudden dizziness
  • Severe dehydration
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent or severe vomiting
  • Pain in the chest or stomach
  • Symptoms that improve then return with a fever or cough

"Additionally, for infants and children, look for symptoms like difficulty breathing, a fever with a rash, difficulty urinating, crying without tears or blue-colored skin," said Dr. Ackerman.

How Do I Prevent the Flu?

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot every year starting at six months of age. According to the CDC, the flu vaccine can reduce your risk of getting the flu by 50 percent. If you already have the flu, the vaccine can make it less severe and guard against serious complications. While peak flu season usually occurs between December and February, it's never too late to get the vaccine.