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Last Modified June 23, 2022
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Influenza and Cancer

In the U.S., flu season typically occurs during the fall and winter months, usually peaking between December and February. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of people in the U.S. get the flu each year.

In the United States, influenza activity decreased in March 2020, was historically low through the summer of 2020, and remained low from October 2020 through most of 2021.

According to a 2021 research study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 pandemic and general use of antiviral interventions (for example, reduced global travel, mask use, physical distancing, and staying home) reduced influenza transmission and other viral respiratory pathogens.

Historically, flu season peaks at about 7.5% in early February, according to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most cases of the flu are mild and do not require medical care or anti-viral drugs. However, people with debilitating cancers, such as mesothelioma, can get very sick from the flu and even die from it.

Flu symptoms usually ease up within a few days, but cancer patients with compromised immune systems may develop life-threatening complications from the virus such as pneumonia.

Getting a flu shot is recommended for most cancer patients, according to the American Cancer Society. However, mesothelioma cancer patients should consult their oncology team before having a flu shot. Certain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may cause the flu vaccine to not work as well or not work at all.

It is important for anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma to stay away from people with the flu to keep from getting sick.

The 2017-18 flu season produced a record number of flu-related hospitalizations. According to data collected by the Influenza Hospitalization Network, an estimated 337,750 Americans were hospitalized because of the flu between October 1 and April 20.

The highest hospitalization rate for the 2017-18 flu season is among people 65 years and older (446.4 cases per 100,000 people).

People in this age group are at high risk of contracting the flu and experiencing serious complications. The majority of pleural mesothelioma cases are also diagnosed in those 65 and older. These patients are at an elevated risk of getting the flu and suffering severe complications.

Types of Influenza Viruses

There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C and D.

Human influenza A and B are responsible for seasonal epidemics, while type C infections generally cause mild respiratory illness. Type D primarily affects cattle and is not known to infect or cause illness in people.

There are many different subtypes of influenza A, based on two proteins on the surface of the viruses: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).

  • H1N1
  • H3N2

Flu viruses are constantly changing, resulting in different strains of the flu. Small genetic changes in the viruses accumulate over time.

This is why someone can get sick multiple times from the flu. It is also why the flu vaccine must be reviewed each year and updated as needed to keep up with evolving viruses.

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Flu Symptoms and Misdiagnosis

Symptoms of the flu are very similar to those of pleural mesothelioma.

Common Flu Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Early signs of mesothelioma include persistent cough, fever and fatigue. The risk of mesothelioma misdiagnosis increases during flu season because the common symptoms of the two illnesses are similar.

Mesothelioma patients who get the flu may see these symptoms increase or become more frequent while they have the virus. They are also more likely to experience serious complications from the flu, including pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

Can the Flu Complicate Mesothelioma Treatment?

Contracting the flu while fighting mesothelioma may decrease a patient’s ability to tolerate cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. It also may delay treatments such as surgery.

Chemotherapy often lowers a cancer patient’s white blood cell count. White blood cells protect the body from infection. Having a low white blood cell count weakens the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off viruses such as the flu.

In this case, the flu can quickly become more serious, leading to complications such as a high fever or pneumonia.

A mesothelioma patient must be in good overall health to withstand potential complications from tumor-removing surgery. Having the flu may delay or disqualify a patient from aggressive surgery, especially if the virus leads to life-threatening complications.

More research is needed to determine how having the flu affects immunotherapy treatment, if at all. Immunotherapy helps the immune system fight cancer.

Some immunotherapy drugs may cause flu-like symptoms. This can make cancer patients feel like they have the flu or possibly make the side effects worse if the patient does indeed have the flu.

Talk to your doctor about how the flu may affect cancer treatments or treatment side effects.

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Can Mesothelioma Patients Get Flu Shots?

The CDC recommends that people with cancer or a history of cancer get a seasonal flu shot. However, mesothelioma patients should talk to their oncology team first to make sure it’s the right decision.

Flu shots are inactivated vaccines made of dead viruses. They do not cause the flu.

These injectable influenza vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. The flu shot protects against the most common strains of the virus during the upcoming season.

Aging decreases the body’s ability to fight infection. There are two types of flu shots designed specifically for people 65 years and older:

  • High-Dose Flu Vaccine: Contains four times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot.
  • FLUAD Flu Vaccine with Adjuvant: Standard-dose, three-component inactivated flu vaccine that contains an added ingredient (adjuvant) to create a stronger immune response to vaccination.

Always consult your doctor before getting a flu shot. They will help decide which type of flu shot is best for you.

People undergoing cancer treatments should get a flu shot, according to the CDC. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy weaken the immune system, which puts mesothelioma patients at a higher risk of serious problems if they get the flu.

The flu shot is also recommended for people who live with or care for cancer patients and survivors. The CDC recommends anyone six months and older get a flu shot.

Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine for Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma patients should not get the nasal spray flu vaccine, which is made of a weakened live virus. Even a very weak live virus may cause illness in a person with a weak immune system.

The CDC advised that the nasal spray flu vaccine should not be used by anyone during the 2017-18 flu season.

Anti-Viral Drugs for the Flu

Anti-viral drugs may be a treatment option for mesothelioma patients who get the flu. These prescription medications can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by one or two days.

More importantly, they can prevent serious flu complications such as pneumonia. Mesothelioma patients should call their doctor right away if they experience flu symptoms.

Anti-viral drugs work by preventing the flu virus from reproducing in your body. For the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC recommended the following anti-viral drugs:

  • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
  • Zanamivir (Relenza)
  • Peramivir (Rapivab)

These drugs work best if taken within two days of getting sick.

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