Surviving Flu Season with an Ostomy or Immune Deficiency

Laura Cox, LPC
Ostomy Lifestyle Specialist | Shield HealthCare
12/13/18  4:35 PM PST
Flu Season with an Ostomy

As the weather gets colder, flu season is once again upon us! We have a long stretch between first sniffles and the warm spring, so what’s the best way to get through flu season with an ostomy? The flu can be dangerous for anyone, but ostomates have to be extra cautious about dehydration when we come down with the flu. The best way to survive flu season is, of course, to avoid getting the flu. You may have heard these before, but just as a reminder, here are some ways to try to avoid contracting the influenza virus.

The tips below are also valuable for individuals with compromised immune systems, and for their close friends and family. You can also watch a video Laura made about how to survive flu season with an ostomy:

Avoid Infection:

  • Get a flu shot*

    Ideally, getting a flu shot should happen before flu season begins – but if you haven’t had a chance, it’s not too late! Make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible to get a flu shot, or head to a CVS Minute Clinic, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Target, Walmart, grocery store, U.S. Healthworks clinic, or an equivalent of any of those places near you. (You can find your closest flu shot location here.) This will decrease the likelihood of you contracting the virus. You may have heard people say, “I got the flu shot, and I still got the flu.” Every year, scientists try to predict which flu strains will be prevalent that year. Sometimes they don’t predict it perfectly, but it is better to build up an immunity to some strains of the flu viruses than none. And even if the strain that you are vaccinated for is not the one you end up catching, the vaccine will still help lessen the severity of your flu, and can help prevent dangerous and fatal complications. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that influenza-associated deaths in the United States (from 2010-2014) ranged from a low of 12,000 (during 2011-2012) to a high of 56,000 (during 2012-2013). Do you have questions about flu vaccine effectiveness? See below for more important facts about the flu shot.

*Some immunocompromised individuals are unable to safely receive a live vaccine, so please check with your doctor before receiving the live vaccine version of the flu shot. Immediate household members of those unable to receive the live vaccine version should also receive the “dead” version of the flu shot:

  • Avoid people who have the flu when you can

    This sounds simple enough, but if you avoid exposure to a virus, you can avoid contracting that virus. I struggled for years to say “no” to plans with friends even if they were feeling sick. Over the years I discovered that avoiding getting sick is a form of self-care. Usually if my friends mention they are sick, but still want to keep our plans, I will honestly tell them that with my health complications I can’t afford to get sick but would love to spend time with them when they’re feeling better.
  • Wash your hands after being out in public, and carry hand sanitizer

    We often don’t thing about how many things we touch on a daily basis and how many germs may be hiding on these objects. From banisters to door handles to faucets, think about how many other hands have also recently touched those objects! Always try to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before eating or touching your face. If you have the option, it’s better to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water when you have the chance.
  • Don’t share food or drinks

    Sharing food and beverages can be an intimate gesture among loved ones and family – but one of the fastest way for germs to spread from person to person is by mouth. This includes sharing beverages, utensils and even lip balm. Most healthy adults are infectious at least one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Decreasing any risk of exposure to a flu virus is a good idea!
  • Boost your immune system

    Boosting your immune system can help you stay healthy. Ask your doctor about taking a daily vitamin, and drink and eat foods that are rich in vitamin C. Sleep is another immune booster: if possible, prioritize getting a full night’s sleep to support your immune system.

If you do catch the flu:

If you do catch the flu, the mission becomes keeping yourself hydrated and as healthy as possible:

  • Call your doctor

    Call your doctor and describe your symptoms. If your doctor feels it is necessary, he or she may ask you to make an appointment to come in. Otherwise, follow the instructions they give to you over the phone.
  • Keep track of your output and intake of fluids

    One of the major dangers of catching the flu for anyone – but especially for people living with an ostomy – is dehydration. Focus on replacing at least as much fluid as you lose.
  • Oral rehydration solutions

    Oral rehydration solutions are recommended for replacing the fluids you lose. These solutions may be drinks such as Pedialyte or Gatorade, as well as oral rehydration solutions you can make at home. Oral rehydration therapy (ORT) involves drinking water with modest amounts of sugar and salts, specifically sodium and potassium. For more information, read our article with recipes for rehydration solutions from one of Shield HealthCare’s on-staff dietitians.
  • Take care of your symptoms

    Treat your coughs, aches, pains and fevers with the appropriate medicines. You can also try easing your discomfort with saline nasal sprays, hot showers, tea for sore throats, Vicks® VapoRub™, etc.
  • Rest

    Your body and mind heal themselves at a greater pace as you sleep, so it is a good idea to rest when you feel tired. This will help your body to fight off the virus.

If your symptoms worsen, change or do not lessen after a few days, check in with your doctor again.

We hope you can avoid the flu this season! Wishing you health and happiness – Laura.

What are the benefits of flu vaccination?

There are many reasons to get a flu vaccine each year. Below is a summary of the benefits of flu vaccination, and selected scientific studies that support these benefits.

  • Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu.
    • Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year. For example, during 2016-2017, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 5.3 million influenza illnesses, 2.6 million influenza-associated medical visits, and 85,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations.
    • In seasons when the vaccine viruses matched circulating strains, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.
  • Flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu-associated hospitalization for children, working age adults, and older adults.
    • Flu vaccine prevents tens of thousands of hospitalizations each year. For example, during 2016-2017, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations.
    • 2014 study showed that flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010-2012.
    • In recent years, flu vaccines have reduced the risk of flu-associated hospitalizations among adults on average by about 40%.
    • 2018 study showed that from 2012 to 2015, flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) with flu by 82 percent.
  • Flu vaccination helps prevent serious medical events associated with some chronic conditions.
    • Vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among people with heart disease, especially among those who had had a cardiac event in the past year.
    • Flu vaccination also has been shown in separate studies to be associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes and chronic lung disease.
  • Vaccination helps protect women during and after pregnancy.
    • Vaccination reduces the risk of flu-associated acute respiratory infection in pregnant women by up to one-half.
    • 2018 study showed that getting a flu shot reduced a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized with flu by an average of 40 percent.
    • Getting vaccinated can also protect a baby after birth from flu. (Mom passes antibodies onto the developing baby during her pregnancy.)
      • A number of studies have shown that in addition to helping to protect pregnant women, a flu vaccine given during pregnancy helps protect the baby from flu infection for several months after birth, when he or she is not old enough to be vaccinated.
  • Flu vaccine can be life-saving in children.
    • A 2017 study was the first of its kind to show that flu vaccination can significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from influenza.
  • Flu vaccination has been shown in several studies to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.
    • A 2017 study showed that flu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients.
    • 2018 study showed that among adults hospitalized with flu, vaccinated patients were 59 percent less likely to be admitted to the ICU than those who had not been vaccinated. Among adults in the ICU with flu, vaccinated patients on average spent 4 fewer days in the hospital than those who were not vaccinated.
  • Getting vaccinated yourself may also protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.

*References for the studies listed above can be found at Publications on Influenza Vaccine Benefits. Also, see the A Strong Defense Against Flu [237 KB, 2 pages] fact sheet.


More articles and videos about living well with an ostomy:

Serving Medicare Ostomates Nationwide
My 89-year-old mother loves to swim but she has found that the pouch fills with water when she gets into the pool. What can we do to fix this?
We recently had someone reach out to our Facebook community with a similar question, and several of our OstomyLife community members responded with their own advice.
Hopefully you and your mother will find their answers helpful ...

Recent OstomyLife


  1. I’ve just turned 80 and have been living with my ostomy going on 9 years. I have it a result of a shot meant to kill a hymroid but got my colon instead. I lost the last 14 inches of decending and was left with the bag. I have been very fortunate with absolutely no issues. I irrigate every morning and that usually get all my discharge for the day.

    I have not previously heard the admonition to hydrate when ill with the flue any more than without. I suppose that is also the case with food poisoning or any other reason to have diarrhea. Why??? Is there something about having the ostomy that makes it worse than without? Why?

    1. Hi David. Thanks for your comment. The reason why hydrating for those with ostomies is so important is that the colon is the organ that does your drinking for you. The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons has a page on their site called “The Colon: What it is, What it Does,” which states: “[After nutrients from food are absorbed by the small intestine.] What is left over, which is mostly liquid, then moves into the colon. The water is absorbed in the colon. Bacteria in the colon break down the remaining material. Then the colon moves the leftover material into the rectum.” Meaning that those who have less colon than they were born with (colostomates) and those without colons (ileostomates) have to drink extra water to help make up for what is lost by what the colon cannot absorb. Hydrating more is important for both colostomates like yourself and ileostomates, but very important for ileostomates. We hope that helps answer your question! Please let us know if you have any others. -Aimee, Shield HealthCare

  2. I am currently going through my 5th ileo blockage. Last night after I ate I could sense a blockage was coming up. What a terrible feeling knowing what is coming up. Is there anything that can be done prior to the full blown blockage to help alleviate the pain? Or is it just lots of liquids and hang in there? Thanks much. Fellow ostimate

    1. Hi Tim T. Thank you for your comment. We are sorry to hear that you are experiencing pain and intestinal blockages. Click here to learn what fellow ostomate’s do to manage this issue. In addition, you might find this article by Laura helpful. Recommendations include: getting enough fluids, drinking juice, walking, massaging the affected area, taking a hot bath, and drinking hot tea. We hope this helps you resolve your pain and intestinal blockages.
      -Sarah, Shield HealthCare

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