Why You Don’t Want to Get the Flu When You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis
Besides making you feel sick, tired, and miserable, catching the flu can be downright dangerous for those who have RA.
By Stacey Colino
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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The flu is a huge bummer for anyone, but if you have rheumatoid arthritis, it’s even more of a threat. For one thing, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that disrupts normal immune function, so if you have this form of arthritis you’re more vulnerable to getting contagious illnesses such as influenza, says Veena K. Ranganath, MD, an associate clinical professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at UCLA Health in Los Angeles.
Factors That Increase Flu Vulnerability
Indeed, people with RA generally have a 70 percent higher risk of developing any type of infection and an 83 percent higher risk of developing an infection that requires hospitalization than their peers who don’t have this autoimmune disease, according to research published inArthritis &Rheumatology.
AndyetdespitethesepotentiallyseriousrisksandthefactthatrheumatologistsconsistentlyurgethosewithRAtogetanannualinfluenzavaccination,noteveryonewhohasRAdoes.InastudypublishedinApril2019in PLoS One,researchersfoundthat20percentofpeoplewithrheumatoidarthritisdidn’treceiveasingleinfluenzavaccinationoverafive-yearperiod.That’sright:OneinfivepeoplewithRAshirkedtheflushoteachyearforfiveyears.
GettingafluvaccineshouldbeanannualtraditionifyouhaveRA,Ranganathsays,soifyourdoctordoesn’tbroachthesubject,youshould.Makesureyougettheinjectablefluvaccine,notthenasalspray,whichiscontraindicatedforthosewithrheumaticdiseases.Thereason:Theinhaledfluvaccinecontainsliveviruses,whichcouldmakeyousickifyouareimmune-compromisedbecauseyouhaveRA; by contrast, the injected flu vaccine contains the inactivated (or killed) strains of the virus, so it won’t make you ill.
Influenza Vaccination: Time It Right
The sooner you get the influenza vaccine, the better, because it takes about two weeks for the shot to give you optimal protection against the flu. (The flu shot is usually available from September or October through the winter months.)
But don’t let your flu-fighting efforts end with the shot. You can take additional steps to protect yourself from the flu: Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers regularly, and always do so before you eat. Avoid touching your mouth or eyes throughout the day, because this is often how germs enter your body. And steer clear of people who are noticeably sick. Remember: “The flu is not something you magically get,” Ranganath says.
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