Everyone should take steps to protect themselves from influenza, or the flu. But if you have any type of inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, you need to be especially proactive.
Both arthritis and certain medications you may take for the disease can weaken your immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a result, if you get the flu, it may cause more severe illness in you than in others. Flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, are also more likely since your body may have a hard time fighting off infections.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple things you can do to protect yourself. No. 1 on that list is to get a flu vaccine every year as soon as it's available. CDC calls being vaccinated the "most important step in protecting against flu viruses" and now recommends that virtually all people age 6 months and older get this protection.
One thing to note: If you have inflammatory arthritis, it's important that you get your vaccine by needle rather than nasal spray. The injectable vaccine contains an inactive virus that doesn't pose a threat to your immune system like the live, weakened virus found in the spray vaccine.
People generally tolerate the vaccines well. It's possible that you'll experience brief autoimmune flare-ups, with problems such as fever and muscle aches. But if these occur, they are usually fairly mild, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.
Talk to your doctor before getting a vaccine if you are allergic to chicken eggs, have had a serious reaction to a past flu shot, have a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome or have a moderate to severe illness with a fever.
In addition to being vaccinated, there are other steps you can take that may help protect you—and those around you—during flu season. CDC and other groups offer these suggestions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be an alternative when soap and water aren't available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. This helps prevent germs from entering your body.
- Try to avoid close contact with people who are ill. And stay home from work or school if you are sick.
- Cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm or a tissue. If you use a tissue, discard it right away.
If the flu bug bites
If, despite your efforts at prevention, you think you might have contracted the flu, let your doctor know as soon as possible. Symptoms can include:
- Sore throat.
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Body aches.
Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. It can shorten the duration and severity of your illness. But to be most effective, it must be given within the first two days of the start of symptoms.
For more information on preventing and treating the flu, visit the Flu health topic center.