Updated July 2020
You’ve felt sick for several days with a fever, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. You’ve been coughing, sneezing, wheezing, and you’ve been sweating, but you cannot get warm.
You have the flu.
It takes a few more days, but after about a week of feeling “the worst you’ve ever felt,” the symptoms begin to ease, and you feel like you could once again join the human race. But just as suddenly as the flu came on, your symptoms rapidly take a drastic turn for the worse. Your fever, coughing, and fatigue are even worse than what you thought was the worst of it. Most likely, you have what is known as a “Secondary Infection,” and it can be more dangerous to you than the flu itself.
During the flu, the virus that causes it does damage to the lining of your nose and lungs, enabling the bacteria around those areas to cause new complications, the most common of which are bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial sinusitis, or bacterial otitis.
If your bout with the flu was cause for concern, the secondary infection should be an even greater one. Of the 50 million people who died during the worldwide flu pandemic in 1918, medical historians now believe 95 percent of them actually died from secondary bacterial pneumonia, which overtook people whose immune systems were already compromised by influenza.
While treatments for the flu and bacterial pneumonia are far more advanced than they were in 1918, secondary infections are still a major concern. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, “Studies have shown that up to 65% of laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza infection exhibited bacterial co/secondary infection, …” And the secondary infection can have dire consequences, particularly among those who have compromised or suppressed immune systems.
As recently as 2009, when the H1N1 or “Swine Flu” virus reached pandemic proportions, hospitals saw a significant increase in admissions due to pneumonia, most of which were due to secondary bacterial infections. In all, the CDC estimates that anywhere from 29 to 55 percent of those who died from H1N1, actually died as a result of secondary bacterial pneumonia rather than the influenza virus itself.
The best way to avoid secondary infections is to avoid getting the flu by getting the flu shot. Although it seems like a simple solution, there are still many who do not believe in being inoculated against influenza. Statistics, however, do show that fatalities from the flu, particularly among children, are far lower among those who were vaccinated. According to the CDC, “During past seasons, approximately 80% of flu-associated deaths in children have occurred in children who were not vaccinated.”
Regardless of whether or not you received the flu vaccine, though, secondary infections are extremely serious. Therefore, if you do have the flu, get better, and then get worse again, see your physician immediately or contact Amwell to schedule an online visit with one of our board-certified physicians.