Why Is the Flu So Dangerous?

Certain people are at higher risk for flu-related complications
Elderly woman suffering with flu symptoms

If you’ve never experienced the flu firsthand, it can be easy to shrug off the warning signs (like a cough and fever).

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But infectious disease specialist Alan Taege, MD, says influenza is a severe, contagious illness that needs to be taken seriously.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the flu has already caused more than 2,000 deaths this season.

“For those who have never had influenza, it’s difficult to understand how much worse it is than a typical cold,” he says. “Influenza makes you much more ill — higher fevers, profound body aches, much more fatigue — and, consequently, it’s a much more severe disease.”

Most people will get through a cold in a week’s time, with minor discomfort, he explains. But the flu can take you out of commission for much longer.

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Key symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever.
  • Body aches.
  • Chills.
  • Tiredness.
  • Symptoms that set in suddenly.

Who’s most at risk?

One of the most dangerous complications that can result from the flu is bacterial pneumonia, Dr. Taege says.

Pneumonia is a lung infection in which the airways become inflamed and the air sacs of the lungs become filled with fluid. It can be life-threatening. Children under age 2, pregnant women, adults over age 65 and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk for developing pneumonia.

He also warns that people could experience a “two-cycle” illness, where you initially start to feel better but then become worse days later.

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“The typical time course, from contracting true influenza to where people will get a secondary pneumonia, is often several days,” he says.

“You may think, ‘I’m starting to get over this — I don’t ache so much, my temperature is coming down and I’m starting to feel better,’ but then suddenly you start coughing and the fever goes back up.”

If you get the flu, the best thing to do is to stay home, get plenty of rest, drink fluids and take over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen to relieve symptoms, Dr. Taege explains.

If you recognize symptoms early on, you may be able to receive anti-viral medications from your doctor, which can lessen the duration of the flu. If you’re at high risk for complications and develop flu symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.

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