Flu season is underway and the reports of sudden deaths continue to send shock waves across the country. In mid-December, three days after being diagnosed with the flu. Then more recently in mid-January, during a hockey event in upstate New York after being diagnosed with Influenza B, one strain of the flu that is sweeping the nation.
According to the latest statistics—ending the week of January 13—from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have been reported this season. The agency also announced that as well as Puerto Rico, while “local activity” was reported by Hawaii and Washington D.C.
However, it was later determined that the pre-teen girl actually died from cardiac arrest due to septic shock. And while it is still unclear if the young boy officially died from the flu, doctors pointed out that the virus could have led to pneumonia, followed by sepsis.
What is sepsis?
“ is a physiological syndrome of inadequate blood flow to critical organs that happens as a result of severe infection,” says , internist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
This life-threatening condition affects more than 1.5 million people in the U.S each year, where approximately 250,000 of those patients die from it, . In most cases, there are four types of infections that can cause sepsis: gut, skin, kidney, and lungs.
“So there’s an indirect connection to the flu,” continues Dr. Roach. “I can’t say that it’s not possible to get sepsis from flu itself. But the usual situation is when you get the flu, it causes damage to the lining of the lungs and makes it more likely for you to develop a very severe pneumonia after the flu. It’s the bacterial pneumonia that can cause the sepsis, which unfortunately, leads to death all too often.”
Anyone is at risk for having an infection and nearly any infection can lead to sepsis. Yet certain individuals—such as adults over the age of 65, children under the age of 1, people with a compromised immune system, as well as those with preexisting chronic health conditions (including lung disease, kidney disease, and cancer)—are at a higher risk.
“Also, people who develop flu who are at risk because of some medical problem should be getting treatment for flu immediately,” stresses Dr. Roach. “In fact, the CDC came out and told all of us doctors last week that we need to be particularly cautious about getting the high-risk people a prescription for the Tamiflu [oseltamivir, the antiviral medication] right away.”
Signs and symptoms
He says symptoms for the uncomplicated flu include a fever, profound muscle aches, a cough, “and this sensation of really feeling bad,” states Dr. Roach. If you do come down with the flu, pay attention to severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath. “Also, if you seem to be getting better but then develop a worse fever, more coughing, even coughing up blood, that can be a sign of pneumonia after flu—and that’s the time to come in again.”
As for signs of sepsis, he uses a memory aid: S—shivering cold; E—extreme pain or discomfort; P—pale skin; S—sleepy or confused; I—“I feel like I might die”; S—shortness of breath. “If you have more than one of those symptoms and you’re at risk, you should get yourself to the emergency room and tell them, ‘I’m worried that I have sepsis because I have [fill in the blank],” he says.
Keep in mind that time is of the essence. “With sepsis, you have about a half-hour to be treated to reduce the risk from going into sepsis shock, which is not always a death sentence, but more people die from it than survive,” says Dr. Roach.
Lastly, he emphasizes that one way to possibly prevent this terrifying chain reaction is getting the flu shot.
“Probably 70-80 percent of people who die from the flu are not vaccinated, and many of those deaths could have been averted with the vaccine,” he concludes. “It’s not completely effective, so you could still get the flu but it reduces your likelihood. Then if you do get the flu, it’s more likely to be a less severe case, which dramatically reduces the likelihood of hospitalization and death. And no, it is not too late to get the vaccine!”