What Cancer Patients Need to Know About the Flu

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

What do cancer patients and survivors need to know about the flu? WebMD asked Lisa Richardson, MD, associate director for science in the CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

Should cancer patients get immunized against the flu?

Absolutely. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine. That message is especially important for cancer patients, because if they get the flu, their risk of getting severe complications is higher, due to their weakened immune system.

What type of flu vaccine is best for cancer patients?

Flu shots are safer than FluMist, the nasal vaccine approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49. FluMist contains live, albeit weakened, flu virus, while flu shots contain killed virus, which can't make you sick. (Some people run a low-grade fever after getting a flu shot, but that's a sign your body is making antibodies against the disease, not a symptom of the flu itself.) If you're over 65, the CDC recommends that you get the Fluzone High-Dose shot, which spurs the aging immune system to produce more antibodies against the flu. The CDC has not yet recommended that younger people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients, also get the high-dose vaccine.

What about survivors who have been cancer-free for a long time?

People who've had leukemia or lymphoma, which are cancers of the immune system, are most at risk for complications from the flu. Another group of survivors who have an elevated risk of complications from the flu are those who were treated with certain chemotherapy drugs that could alter their immune system long-term.

But if your immune system is compromised, does the flu vaccine work as well?

Getting a flu shot is better than not getting a flu shot, although it might not work as well as in a healthy person. If you do contract the flu after getting immunized, chances are you won't get as sick as someone who hadn't received a flu shot.

Does having cancer increase your risk of contracting the flu?

Some scientists believe cancer patients are more susceptible to coming down with the flu, but that hasn't been confirmed. However, it is clear that once they become sick, they have a higher risk of complications.

Will a flu shot interfere with any cancer treatments?

Flu shots haven't been shown to reduce the effectiveness of cancer therapy, but that misconception probably helps explain why many patients mistakenly refuse to get immunized.

What should cancer patients or survivors do if they think they might have come in contact with someone who has the flu?

Call your doctor. If you've had chemotherapy or radiation therapy within the past month, or if you have leukemia or lymphoma, your doctor might prescribe an antiviral medication to prevent you from getting sick.

What should cancer patients do if they have flu symptoms?

If you're at all concerned about your symptoms, such as a fever, you should contact your doctor. It's likely that your cancer treatment, and not the flu, is responsible. But if you do have the flu, the sooner you see your doctor, the sooner you can start taking antiviral medication to minimize your risk of complications.

Is it important for caregivers and family members to get flu shots as well?

While everyone 6 months of age and older should get immunized against the flu, it's especially vital for people who are in close contact with cancer patients. Flu vaccine can help keep caregivers and household members healthy and prevent them from infecting others.


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SOURCE: Lisa Richardson, MD, associate director for science, CDC Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

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