On December 20, 2009, 32-year-old actress Brittany Murphy died of flu related complications in her Beverly Hills, California home. Five months later her husband, Simon Monjack, was found dead in the same home with the same cause of death – flu related complications.
Ignoring the flu can certainly be deadly. Far too often, confused with the common cold, the flu (influenza) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. They are unique among respiratory viruses because they’re amazingly adaptable and have a history of “drifting” and “shifting” into other, sometimes more lethal combinations. That’s why a new influenza vaccine has to be prepared every year.
Flu season is from late November through March. Each year 35 to 50 million people are infected with influenza. Annual deaths from influenza in the United States have ranged from as few as 3,000 to as high as 49,000. People who develop flu may quickly develop influenza pneumonia. If you begin to have a rapid breathing rate, rapid heart rate, lightheadedness, or shortness of breath you should go to the emergency room or call your doctor. The virus also can damage the lungs and set up a pneumonia caused by bacteria. If you develop shaking chills, chest pain or pain when you breathe, or bring up sputum containing blood, you should go to the emergency room or call your doctor.
Influenza can be spread to other people beginning one day before any symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming sick. When people cough, sneeze, or talk, droplets spread the virus. Less often, touching a surface a flu virus can lead to infection.
A flu vaccine definitely is the best protection against influenza. However, those with severe allergy to chicken egg, anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine in the past, and children younger than six months should not be immunized. If you are sick and have a fever, you should wait until you have recovered before getting the flu shot. There’s a lot you can do to help prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses like the flu.
-Vicki Lyons, MD and
Timothy J. Sullivan, MD