When the flu becomes fatal

Jan. 18, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

Tamiflu, a medicine that's particularly useful in treating flu symptoms in children. Youngsters are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the virus – 29 in the U.S. have died this season. (Richard Sunderland/Flickr Creative Commons)

Federal health officials reported Friday that at least 29 children have died of the flu since the current season's start,

But how do people die of the flu? Most who come down with the virus can overcome it with no serious problems – miserable as that process may be – and certainly without coming within arm's length of death's door. Besides, there's a pretty effective vaccine – one which health officials have been tirelessly imploring everyone older than six months to get, no less.

Influenza is a virus that infects the respiratory tract. The cells lining that tract are covered in cilia, tiny organelles that function to sweep dirt, mucus and other "debris" from the windpipe.

The flu destroys those cells.

Once those cells are under attack, symptoms set in: bronchitis (a cough), fever, chills, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting, to name a few. While the most prohibitive symptoms are usually gone within a week, the cough and fatigue can last for weeks.

Dr. James Cherry, a professor of pediatrics at UCLA and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Mattel Children's Hospital, says there are a few ways the flu can become fatal. For one, it can lead to pneumonia – an inflammation of the lungs themselves – which "can be fatal."

"It's worse in young children, particularly in the first two years of life," said Cherry. "And the first year is worse than the second year. In the average flu year, there's close to 100 deaths among children."

Influenza can also kill if it leads to a secondary bacterial infection – an infection that happens during or after treatment of another already-existing infection. "That can be very bad," said Cherry.

"The virus can also cause inflammation in the heart, which could lead to death," he added. "It's not common, but it's possible. It can also lead to encephalitis," or inflammation of the brain, which can also be deadly.

Older folks, along with children, are more vulnerable to the flu because "their cilia and stuff don't function well," said Cherry. "That's old age."

Other people who are "compromised," as Cherry put it, include those being treated with steroids. Rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS and cancer patients, as well as people with transplants, also make that list.

Cherry joined the chorus of health officials strongly encouraging people who aren't already to get vaccinated.

"The vaccine does work," he said. There is, however, an element of the unknown: The medicine is different each year, because it has to be matched to the predominant strain of flu on a given year. Different vaccines work differently in different people, injecting a lot of "variability" into the situation, said Cherry.

"The basic thing is that we don't vaccinate everybody we should," he added.

Cherry also emphasized that for people who already have the flu and are seen by a doctor within the first 48 hours of experiencing symptoms, antiviral medication has been proven to be effective.

Here's a tool that can help you find a place to get vaccinated near you, although shortages in certain areas may mean you have to shop around. Neither federal nor L.A. County officials foresee a widespread shortage in their respective jurisdictions.

Photo by Richard Sunderland via Flickr Creative Commons.

Stories nearby