Healthy Living

A look at why the flu proved to be so deadly this year

Flu can make other chronic health problems worse

(File photo) Stethoscopes hang in the hallway at His Hands Free Clinic on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
(File photo) Stethoscopes hang in the hallway at His Hands Free Clinic on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

This year’s flu season was more severe than most — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more hospitalizations and more flu-associated deaths than in previous years. Here in Iowa, there were more than 1,700 influenza-associated hospitalizations, public health officials reported.

What’s more, there were more than 8,500 non-influenza respiratory viruses in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Most people who catch the flu will recover in less than a week — but complications can occur, which can be life threatening.

The flu, which is highly contagious and spreads quickly, can easily turn into pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus or ear infections. It also can make chronic health problems worse.

“There was an increased mortality and morbidity rate in certain high-risk populations,” said Dr. Hafiz Hashmi, a pulmonologist at UnityPoint Health Cedar Rapids. Those most at risk are those 65 and older, those with chronic medical conditions such as COPD, diabetes, lung cancer and chronic liver disease, and pregnant patients, including those who are two weeks postpartum.

Flu symptoms include fever, aching muscles, chills and sweats, headache, fatigue, sore throat and nasal congestion. Flu season typically runs from October to May, with cases peaking in December, January and February.

Meanwhile, pneumonia symptoms include chest pain when you breathe or cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, and fever, sweating and shaking chills.

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If flu symptoms develop, experts say you should see your doctor straight away, especially those who are high risk. Taking antiviral drugs within the first 48 hours after you notice symptoms can reduce the length of your illness or help it be less severe.

“With high-risk populations, a hallmark of pneumonia is you get the flu, start to feel better, and then come back to the emergency room with a worsening cough, phlegm or fever a few days later,” Hashmi said.

Flu and other respiratory illnesses can spread through surface contact, Hashmi said. When someone sneezes or coughs, the germs can spread and linger. Washing hands and good hygiene are important, as is the flu vaccine, which is recommended to anyone over 6 months old.

Pneumonia is the most serious complication, experts said, and for older adults and people with a chronic illness, it can be deadly.

The lungs are a spongy organ, said Dr. Amal El-Bakush, a pulmonologist at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. The lung is lined by a thin sack, she said, and with pneumonia, the fluid can leak into that area.

“Each lung has lobes and sometimes multiple lobes can be infected,” she said. “The more lobes involved, the less oxygen you get.”

A chest X-ray must be taken to determine if the illness is pneumonia or not, and it must be treated with antibiotics.

“People don’t realize they have pneumonia, so they don’t go to see a doctor early and they don’t get antibiotics, and so the pneumonia gets worse,” El-Bakush said. “You have to have an antibiotic to fight the infection.”

Flu or pneumonia? Know the symptoms:

Flu

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  • Fever
  • Aching muscles
  • Chills and sweats
  • Headache
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion

Pneumonia

  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea,
  • Fever, sweating and shaking chills

Source: Mayo Clinic

High-risk populations:

  • Young children under two
  • Adults older than 65
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People who have chronic illnesses, such as asthma, heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes
  • People who are very obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher

Source: Mayo Clinic

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