The current flu season has turned especially tragic by killing a surprising number of seemingly healthy people, such as Kyler Baughman. The 21-year-old bodybuilder from Pennsylvania died a few days after showing symptoms of the flu.
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Baughman’s death is a tragic example of how the flu can quickly turn deadly when it leads to sepsis, blood poisoning, which can occur as a complication of influenza.
“So many of these stories involve young, healthy people, and they go to a healthcare center where the doctor expects them to do well with hydration and maybe some anti-viral medication,” notes Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
“Then, all of a sudden, they take a turn for the worse and wind up fighting for their lives. And we have no way of picking out these patients from the other 99 percent who won’t become gravely ill.”
Most people who catch the flu get over it in a few miserable days. But the ailment still manages to kill between 12,000 and 52,000 Americans every year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A vast majority of those fatalities involve high risk groups, such as the elderly, the very young, and those with pre-existing health problems.
But some flu strains — Spanish, swine, bird and this season’s N3H2 — cause a larger number of relatively young, healthy people to die from sepsis. And it often strikes with an alarming quickness.
It starts with the flu virus sparking an intense immune response, called a “cytokine storm” (after the activating cytokine proteins), which causes systemic inflammation.
“The immune response is so strong it causes collateral damage to organs that can send these young people into intensive care,” Schaffner tells Newsmax Health. “If the damage is overwhelming and supportive care insufficient, people can die of multi-organ failure.”
The flu is just one potential cause of sepsis. It also can come from infections of the skin, lungs, gut, and kidneys that send bacteria into the bloodstream. Also called “blood poisoning,” sepsis quietly attacks some 1.5 million Americans every year, and kills 250,000, says the CDC.
One reason you don’t hear more about sepsis is that it’s often not mentioned in media reports. They usually say that the person has died of “complications” from things such as pneumonia, cancer or surgery when the actual cause of death is sepsis.
Famous people who died from it include “Superman” star Christopher Reeve, country singer Ray Price, Muppet creator Jim Henson, comic actor Bernie Mac, and Prince Rainier of Monaco.
“The designation has been given a lot more prominence in recent years,” says Schaffner. “When you include all of the causes, sepsis is clearly more substantial than previously thought.”
Since it can strike so quickly, it’s important to know the symptoms of sepsis, which the Sepsis Alliance spells out in the condition’s name:
- S = Shivering or high fever
- E = Extreme pain or constant discomfort
- P = Pale or discolored skin
- S = Sleepy and/or confused
- I = ”I feel like I might die”
- S = Shortness of breath
“If you have a general sense of not feeling well, difficulty breathing and a sustained fever greater than 102, don’t take two aspirin and hope to feel better,” warns Schaffner. “You also might feel woozy when sitting upright or standing, which is an indication that your blood pressure is falling. In that case, have someone take you to the emergency room.”
A drop in blood pressure is a telltale sign of septic shock, which is extremely life-threatening. A 2006 study found that the risk of death from septic shock increased by 7.6 percent for every hour that lapsed before treatment, which consists of intravenous antibiotics and fluids.
Although all flu strains can lead to sepsis, this season’s H3N2 is causing more cases than normal. Of course, the best way to prevent getting flu-spawned sepsis is to avoid catching the virus in the first place.
Says Schaffner: “Getting influenza vaccine is the best way to prevent influenza and its grave complications, including sepsis.”