The United States is experiencing the highest number of flu hospitalizations in a decade, and there is no indication that the virus will peak or disappear in the coming weeks. With the busy holiday travel season approaching and a relatively low percentage of adults being vaccinated against the flu, that leaves millions of people at potential risk for serious complications.
While most people who catch the flu recover within days, some can develop life-threatening complications. There have been at least 7,300 flu deaths, including 21 children, since October, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 120,000 people have been hospitalized with the flu in the past two months, the CDC reported. Nine out of 10 adults hospitalized with the flu had at least one underlying medical condition.
Those most at risk of contracting severe influenza are children under 5, people over 65, immunocompromised people and pregnant women.
People with flu complications most often end up in hospital because the virus turns into pneumonia, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease physician at the University of California. in San Francisco.
Bacterial pneumonia can develop when the flu virus spreads to the lower respiratory tract, causing breathing difficulties that may require supplemental oxygen.
Warning signs of pneumonia
Although many flu symptoms, such as fever and body aches, overlap with pneumonia, some clues may indicate that a more serious lung infection is brewing.
A cough with yellow or green sputum, increased fever, and chest pain when breathing deeply or coughing are warning signs of pneumonia.
Some pneumonia patients may also develop sepsis, a complication that can lead to organ failure and death, especially if not treated promptly.
Influenza pneumonia is not limited to the elderly, said Dr. Jonathan Grein, an infectious disease physician and director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
“Unfortunately, sometimes we see healthy young people also presenting with very severe pneumonia,” Grein said. “It can happen to anyone.”
Flu and pneumonia combined are the ninth leading cause of death in the United States, killing tens of thousands of people a year, according to the CDC.
The flu virus can increase the risk of heart attack
A bout of influenza is also associated with an increased risk of heart attack, as well as rare cases of inflammation of the brain or muscles.
“The flu can cause all these non-lung issues that people don’t usually think about,” Chin-Hong said.
A 2018 study found that patients were six times more likely to suffer a heart attack the week after flu infection than at any time in the year before or year after infection.
Chin-Hong said he treated people with influenza who developed encephalitis – a dangerous inflammation of the brain that can be triggered by viral infections – or myositis, which causes painful muscle weakness.
Being sick with the flu can also worsen flare-ups of chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma, Grein said.
“The flu triggers an immune response in your body to help fight off this infection, but sometimes that response can be a bit overwhelming,” he said. “In a diabetic patient, their blood sugar goes up, or you can see patients with underlying lung disease, if they have the flu, it could make it harder for them to breathe.”
Seized up pregnant
One of the groups most at risk for flu complications includes pregnant women, in part because of weakened immune systems during pregnancy, said infectious disease expert Dr Carlos del Rio, Dean Associate Executive at Emory and Grady University School of Medicine. Health system in Atlanta.
Even for a healthy woman, changes in heart and lung function during pregnancy can make them more likely to get seriously ill from the flu. Despite this, many patients remain unvaccinated during pregnancy.
A recent CDC survey found that only half of all pregnant women received their flu shots as recommended, leaving many at risk of serious illness from the flu.
“The most serious complication is respiratory failure, but there are other complications, such as inflammation of the heart,” del Rio said.
He is most concerned about respiratory failure, which may require intubation in the intensive care unit.
More news on the tripledemic
And it is possible that a severe flu infection could lead to a “long flu”. As with Covid, there are concerns that people infected with the flu may also have lingering long-term effects. Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale University, told NBC News in November that after the flu, it’s not uncommon to experience symptoms, especially persistent fatigue and brain fog.
However, more research is needed to understand the extent of the problem.
Is it worth getting the flu shot?
Although flu shots aren’t perfect, getting vaccinated is the best way to help prevent these complications, experts agree. Full protection takes about two weeks, and although it’s still possible to get infected with the flu after being vaccinated, you’re less likely to get seriously ill with this extra protection.
Although there are no data on the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine yet, it appears to be a “really good match” with the circulating strains, said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. , during a briefing last week.
Even after being diagnosed with the flu, it is still important to get vaccinated, as it provides broader protection against different strains of the flu virus. It’s possible to catch the flu more than once per season, experts say.
The current vaccine protects against four strains: two strains of influenza A and two strains of influenza B.
“It’s not too late to get your flu shot,” Chin-Hong said. “We don’t know when flu season is going to end, and we saw a really long line up until spring last year.”
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