Got HIV? Avoid the flu

Flu prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS patients

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

For most people, getting the flu is an unpleasant, seasonal occurrence. But for people with HIV, the flu can be devastating for their already-compromised health.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the body's immune system, making it more difficult for people with HIV to fight off other viruses like the flu.

While an otherwise healthy person with the flu may decide to let sickness run its course without even seeing a doctor, if you have HIV, you should seek medical attention if you think you're coming down with something.

Better yet, you can take steps to avoid the flu in the first place.

What you need to know about the flu

You've probably heard of “flu season.” Influenza is a seasonal virus – that means you're more likely to be exposed to the virus during certain times of the year.

In the U.S., flu season is considered to be between October and May, peaking in February.

Flu shots are available at doctors' offices, and as well as clinics and pharmacies. Even your grocery store may offer a flu vaccine.

There are many different strains of flu. The flu that's hitting Washington State might not be the same flu that is being transmitted through Washington D.C.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the flu shot is made up of the three strains of flu that scientists predict will be most common. Each year, these strains change. That's why you have to renew your flu shot every year.

Because people with HIV are at especially high risk to flu, the CDC recommends vaccination with a shot. The nasal mist version of the vaccine is NOT recommended because it contains live forms of flu, which are more likely to cause an infection.

The risks of getting the flu

The nature of HIV makes it harder for patients to fight off other diseases. If a case of flu is left untreated, it may turn into something worse.

Flu can cause complications such as pneumonia, which can lead to death. Studies have shown an increase in flu-related deaths in people with HIV during flu season. There are also more hospitalizations for people infected with HIV while flu season is on.

People with HIV might have the flu for a longer period of time than otherwise healthy people, and they are more likely to develop complications.

If you have HIV, your best defense against the flu is to get the shot. The CDC also recommends that the people you live and work with are vaccinated as well – the less exposure you have, the less likely you are to get the flu.

Treating the flu

If you're HIV-positive and you get the flu, you may experience fever, congestion, body aches, fatigue, and headache. Seek medical attention immediately.

Your doctor may prescribe influenza antiviral drugs. These can only be taken with a prescription, and fight against the flu in your body. Brand names include Tamiflu and Relenza.

The earlier you start taking these drugs, the better. According to the CDC, studies have shown that flu medications work best if they are taken within two days of getting sick.

Taking medication is also necessary if you are at a higher risk for complications from flu. In addition to HIV/AIDS, asthma, blood disorders, chronic lung disease, and other health conditions can cause problems in treatment.

While the flu might seem like a mundane sickness, for those with HIV it's anything but. Getting vaccinated on a yearly basis, and getting medical attention when you do get the flu, is essential for HIV-positive patients.