How to Tell When Your Flu Turns Deadly

Image above from ABC News

Once healthy children and young adults are falling victim to this severe flu strain prompting parents to fear the worse when it comes to theirs or their child’s flu symptoms.

Who can blame them. Flu symptoms can last 2 weeks, and most patients are told to go home and rest as antibiotics don’t help fight the flu and symptoms will resolve on their own. This is true, but then why are some people dying?

What are the symptoms of the flu?

To understand why people are often misdiagnosed for flu-related illness when something even more serious is occurring, lets first list the common symptoms of the flu.

  • Fever
  • Body Aches
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Sore Throat
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

As opposed to a cold, in which symptoms are less severe and come on 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 then fever. The fever could range anywhere from 100 – 106 F.  The fever usually last 2 days and the majority of those affected by the flu will average symptoms from 3-5 days.

How can you die from the flu?

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 the flu doubled one’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

Finally, 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 septic shock initiated by the flu.  This is what killed 21-year-old body builder Kyler Baughman.

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21-year-old athletic trainer Kyler Baughman died days after feeling flu-like symptoms

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.   4 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.

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12-year-old Alyssa Alcaraz was diagnosed with the flu when she in fact had a streptococcal infection.

 

How do 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:

  • A fever that does not subside
  • A fever that returns, recurring fever
  • New symptoms forming such as weakness
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Dizziness
  • Unable to keep fluids down
  • Dehydration
  • Chest pain – could signify pneumonia or heart involvement
  • Bluish lips or skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Worsening cough

Understanding what the flu virus can affect and not underestimating its severity is paramount in preventing flu fatalities.  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.

 

 

 

Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, iHeart Radio and Board Certified Family Physician

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