This flu season has been demonstrably worse than usual, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are many weeks to come, so it’s important to protect yourself from the flu virus. A lot of people get the flu and recover within a week, but under certain circumstances, the flu can turn fatal. Bustle asked Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, how people die from the flu, and he explained how complications occur and what to do to minimize the danger of a serious flu.
The CDC reports that 37 children in the United States have died from the flu this season. Between Oct. 1 and Jan. 20, there have been 11,965 laboratory-confirmed flu-related hospitalizations reported, and it’s important to note that not everyone who gets the flu goes to the hospital. So the number of folks who have had the flu during the same time period is likely much higher. Worldwide, flu epidemic statistics are even more startling. The World Health Organization estimates that the flu is responsible for 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths.
Some populations are more susceptible to the flu than others. Dr. Taege tells Bustle the people at highest risks for complications from the flu are “people who have any kind of chronic condition, all the way from diabetes to lung disease.” He also says that people who are being treated for cancer or who are on any medication that suppresses the immune system are also at a greater risk. He suggests that “people over the age of 60 and very young people who've not been exposed to hardly anything” should contact their physician upon the first signs of flu symptoms, because they are more likely to develop complications from the infection that could be fatal. Generally, he says, "If you're healthy otherwise," it's OK to rest and ride out the flu at home.
But what's particularly scary about this flu season is that some young, seemingly healthy people are still dying from the flu. Dr. Taege points to secondary bacterial infections and preexisting conditions to explain how the flu can turn fatal. “Often times it's not just the initial influenza that kills people,” he says. "It's frequently the secondary bacterial infection that's set in," such as pneumonia. "This can lead to death and even infection of the bloodstream with bacteria. That's the real killer.” You’re more likely to contract a secondary infection if they have damage or inflammation throughout your respiratory tract, according to Dr. Taege. Dr. Taege notes that if you've had the vaccine but still contract the flu, and you're hit "hard" and "quickly," that's when you should know to call your physician. Similarly, if you make it through the virus itself OK, but start to feel worse after feeling better, you should contact your doctor.
The flu is a viral infection and, as Dr. Taege explained, having a viral infection makes you more susceptible to a subsequent bacterial infection. The CDC’s weekly flu report states that 9.1 percent of the deaths occurring during the first week of 2018 were due to pneumonia and influenza, which is above the 7.2 percent threshold to be considered an epidemic.
There are ways to protect yourself from coming down with the flu and subsequent deadly infection. Dr. Taege says, “The most important thing they can do is get vaccinated.” Although a flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective in preventing the flu, it’s a good start — and it can decrease the severity of the flu if you do contract it. He adds, “If you start to have symptoms that suggest influenza, contact your physician quickly. If you catch influenza symptoms early enough, you can still use medication to markedly reduce the severity and duration of the infection.” Also, if you’re feeling sick, it’s important to limit your exposure to other people, so please, stay home from work. Staying away from people who are sick will help you to not catch the flu from someone else. The CDC predicts that the flu season will continue for a while longer, so paying attention to your health — even if you're young, healthy, and have no preexisting conditions, is very important.