How Dangerous Is Flu?

Influenza virusSource: CDC
Influenza virus
Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

Everyone has experienced the symptoms of common cold at one point in life. It has become so common that many people now consider it normal and an infection which only requires a visit to the local store and thus over-the-counter medications.

The general symptoms of the common cold are similar for many people and include a sore throat, runny nose, cough and stuffed nasal passage, among others. These symptoms are considered minor and come with no real worry to the affected. The case is, however, different when we talk of influenza. There are many possibilities to consider in case of flu and this leads to the question; how dangerous is the flu?

In short – flu is dangerous and should never be ignored. Flu is not a minor infection. It is alarming to know that flu kills as many as 24,000 people every year – this is only in the United States. So many deaths caused by an infection that many people do not take seriously. Another fact is that the deaths mostly happen during the “flu season”, that is between the months of December and March. Most affected is the elderly population (with over 90% being the men and women of 65 years and above). This is a kind of statistics that we should not allow to rise.

Flu is very difficult to treat. One thing that makes it even more deadly is the fact that it changes its form rapidly and in a way that is hard to predict. This makes it difficult to develop the perfect, universal vaccine as it comes with a different strain every time there’s an outbreak. Another daunting fact is that it is also difficult to make drugs that effectively fight the virus.

Creating antibodies that fight the flu virus requires a lot of energy which only make you feel more sick and tired. In simple terms, flu is a dangerous infection that poses a great risk to the infected person. It is ever dangerous regardless of the kind of self-defense that we put in place. For instance, the flu pandemic that happened in 1918 caused more deaths than those caused by World War I. Over 500 million people were infected, and 20 to 50 million died (1% to 3% of the total world population at that time). The Influenza A(H1N1) virus (first described in 2009) could have killed 579,000 people by 2012 (there is still no consensus as to this number). It is even more surprising to know that contrary to the statistics known, more people who died from the flu virus were people from a younger age group, well below 65 years. To be more specific, most people who died from the virus were under 25 years.

This may be surprising for you as it is commonly believed that it’s the elderly whom the flu normally kills. What does this tell us? It is clear from the statistics that the flu virus can kill anybody – young or old; healthy or unhealthy.

1918 influenza virions
1918 influenza virions
Source: Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

Among all the complications of the flu (and there are many), one of the most serious is pneumonia. It disrupts the normal functioning of an infected person’s respiratory system. One of the easily noticeable symptoms of pneumonia is cyanosis – blue coloration of the skin around the mouth, caused by lack of oxygen. Pneumonia may lead to fatal complications that pose a grave risk to the infected person. The most unfortunate thing with flu is that it is unpredictable and has its severity varies according to many factors. These factors include: the type of flu viruses that are spreading, the amount of vaccine available, the number of people vaccinated and the extent to which the flu vaccine affects the viruses causing the flu infections at the time.

Older people are primarily the ones who are at greater risk of developing serious complications in cases of flu infections. This does not mean that they are the only group of people who are at risk when the illness strikes. Young children, people with known health conditions like asthma and diabetes and pregnant women are also at greater risk of developing serious complications. Obviously, medical and support personnel in hospitals and nursing homes are also at greater risk of developing greater complications.

There are several warning signs that you should always look out for and attend to urgently. These symptoms slightly vary with age. If a flu-infected person experiences a change in skin color and the skin goes gray or bluish, he or she should seek urgent medical care. Other conditions that require special attention include: increased breathing rate or difficulty breathing, severe vomiting, dehydration, high fever and intense coughing or even noticeably decreased brain activity (inability to think clearly or focus).

In conclusion, flu should be taken seriously and never ignored. Only the professional may tell if you are suffering from a common infection or you are infected with a dangerous strain of influenza. Many people die every year because of flu and it is therefore upon us to keep ourselves safe from suffering serious complications of the virus. Immediate medical attention should be sought as soon as possible, as in severe cases even several hours may mean the difference between life and death.

Further reading

Google Flu Trends
The New York Times – Health Guide
National Health Service page on Flu
WebMD page on Flu