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Can you really die from the flu if you’re healthy? Unfortunately, as a recent tragic case shows, the answer is yes.
Kyle Baughman, a 21-year-old bodybuilder from Pennsylvania, was otherwise healthy when he got the flu, reports local news station WXPI. What started as an innocent runny nose, cough, and fever on December 23 landed him in the ER four days later—with a worsening cough and rising fever. A day later, Baughman died from organ failure and septic shock caused by the flu. (Related: Is It the Flu, a Cold, or Winter Allergies?)
Dying from flu complications happens more often than you think. According to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year up to 650,000 people around the world die from respiratory complications of the flu. While most of these deaths occur among the elderly or infants and people in poor countries, the death of a healthy 21-year-old bodybuilder isn’t unheard of, says Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., an ER physician and head of clinical strategy at Sharecare. “There are deaths in healthy people every single year, and it’s an important example of just how tragic and deadly the flu virus can be.”
Still, cases like this aren’t a reason to panic at the slightest cough. “You don’t need to rush to the ER at the first sign of fever or body aches,” says Peter Shearer, M.D., director of the emergency department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “But if your symptoms or fever are getting worse, you should be evaluated.” If you’re starting to have flu symptoms (a runny nose, cough, fever above 102°F, body aches), see your primary care doctor to get started on Tamiflu, which is an antiviral treatment that can help reduce the severity of the flu. “It’s important to get that early, within the first 48 hours,” says Dr. Shearer.
The best thing you can do to prevent serious complications from the flu is to get your flu shot. Yes, the vaccine varies in effectiveness from year to year, but you still need it. (So far, CDC estimates predict the 2017 vaccine is about 39 percent effective, which is less effective than previous years due to a particularly nasty strain of the virus going around this year. Get your flu shot anyway!)
“Even though the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it drastically reduces your chances of death and complications,” says Dr. Gillespie. “Studies suggest that among people who die from the flu, anywhere from 75 to 95 percent of them were not vaccinated. The flu vaccine is a crucial tool in protecting all of us from the flu and its complications.”
That said, the vaccine may not have prevented this tragic death. “Even if someone does everything right, the nature of the flu virus is that it can cause severe, deadly complications, that no one could have foreseen or prevented,” says Dr. Gillespie.
If you do catch the flu, the most important thing you can do is rest up, says Dr. Gillespie. “The flu strains are particularly severe this year, and your body needs to rest, not tax itself,” she says. Secondly, stay home. “Whole communities need to take care of each other when there’s an outbreak like this,” says Dr. Shearer. In other words, call in sick. Even if you think you can muscle through it, someone you pass the virus to might not be able to.
Most people will feel better on their own with lots of rest, fluids, and cough medicine, says Dr. Gillespie. “If you have chronic illnesses such as asthma, COPD, or other chronic conditions, you may want to talk with your doctor about antiviral medications. If you experience shortness of breath, confusion, seizures, or lethargy or confusion, then seek care in the ER.”