This year’s flu season has claimed the lives of at least 6 children and many more adults. It’s widespread in many states, and we are told to brace ourselves for yet another severe flu season as we enter the peak.
However, the number one cause of death when it comes to the flu is pneumonia. And the respiratory depression that appears to come on with these otherwise healthy individuals, appears to affect them within hours. Which raises the question…. Should we be entertaining the possibility that a severe pneumonia strain is affecting us this “flu season” and should we be encouraging pneumonia vaccines as well as the flu vaccine?
The vaccine schedule for children in the US includes the pneumococcal vaccine (PCV13) given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 12 – 15 months of age. Over 2 years of a child, one can get the PPSV23 if they did not receive the PCV13.
Not all young adults get the pneumonia vaccine, however if one if over 65, the CDC recommends the pneumococcal vaccines receiving a dose of PCV13 first, followed by a dose of PPSV23, at least 1 year later.
Now a variety of pathogens can be responsible for pneumonia, including viruses’, fungi, and bacteria other than pneumococcus, but streptococcal pneumonia is the most common cause. If those affected by pneumonia this year were vaccinated, we need to know the strain, meaning specifically what pathogen was responsible for their pneumonia.
Although pneumonia presents with symptoms such as fever, body aches, cough, shortness of breath and sputum production, some individuals may not present with these symptoms when they have pneumonia. Some of the tragic “flu death” cases this year were in adults who initially had a “mild cough”. Since flu symptoms are similar, some may never know if they have pneumonia.
As a result we are telling patients who have the flu to return immediately to the doctor’s office/urgent care/emergency room if they have any of the below symptoms:
and speak with your medical provider regarding other symptoms they may want you to watch out for.
This week the CDC reports a 5th pediatric flu death as we face a season, many have predicted, to be “severe.”
And in previous years, once healthy children and young adults fell victim to severe circulating flu strains prompting parents this year to fear the worse when it comes to theirs or their child’s flu symptoms.
Who can blame them. Flu symptoms can last up to 2 weeks, and most patients are told to go home and rest as antibiotics do not help fight the flu and symptoms will usually “resolve on their own.” This is true, but then why are some people..healthy people…dying?
To understand why people are often misdiagnosed for flu-related illness when something even more serious is occurring, let’s first list the common symptoms of the flu.
As opposed to a cold, in which symptoms are less severe and come on more slowly, the flu seems to hit you within hours. The fatigue may be the first symptom, followed by body aches, scratchy throat, cough, runny nose and fever. The fever could range anywhere from 100 – 106 F. The fever usually lasts 2 days and the majority of those affected by the flu will average symptoms from 3-5 days.
There are multiple ways to die from the flu. The most common cause is pneumonia. A secondary viral or bacterial infection can affect the already weakened lungs. Pneumonia can be deadly, especially if untreated. Symptoms of pneumonia are very similar to the flu: shortness of breath, cough, fever, fatigue, body aches, etc.
Respiratory failure from inflammation can be fatal as well. The flu virus affects the respiratory tree causing acute inflammation and distress of the tissues whose job is to bring oxygen to the blood. Additionally, other organs including the heart may become inflamed, impeding their duties.
Flu can increase one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. A study in 2007 found coming down with the flu doubled one’s risk of heart attack and stroke.
Moreover, having the flu could worsen any disease states already being battled. Hence a diabetic, if suffering from the flu, may struggle to control his blood sugar numbers.
Rarely, some may go into multi-organ failure as a result of septic shock initiated by the flu. This is what killed 21-year-old bodybuilder Kyler Baughman.
But one risk that doesn’t get discussed as much as it should is coming down with an illness during flu season and being mis-diagnosed, a “guilty by association” picture.
Four days before her death, 12-year-old Alyssa Alcaraz was sent home by an urgent care with a flu diagnosis when in fact she had a strep infection in her blood that put her into septic shock.
How will I know when the flu is turning deadly?
Since symptoms of the flu start to resolve in a couple of days, any symptoms beyond those few days should spark suspicions. These can include:
Understanding what the flu virus can affect and not underestimating its severity is paramount in preventing flu fatalities. If symptoms start improving after 2 days it’s a great sign!! However, any symptoms that either do not resolve, lag on for days, evolve into something worse, or recur are red flags that something more than the flu could be going on.
Most importantly, if one has not been vaccinated yet against the flu, they should still consider getting the flu vaccine.