The flu-related death of a 21-year-old aspiring personal trainer in Pennsylvania sparked conversation about the seriousness of the virus.
Kyler Baughman, who had no known health problems, died just after Christmas. His mother told WPXI News that his organs failed due to septic shock caused by the flu.
The case, while rare, isn’t the only flu-related death reported this season.
The predominant strain that is circulating is a “severe one,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at University Health Network in Toronto, told Global News.
WATCH: Thousands of deaths annually associated with respiratory diseases from flu
But how common are deaths related to the flu? Bogoch says cases such as Baughman’s do occur.
“It’s terrible, this is very sad,” Bogoch said, explaining that generally, deaths related to severe cases of influenza occur in the very young or elderly population, or among those who have pre-existing medical conditions.
“It’s not common, yet it’s not uncommon for a healthy, young individual to have very bad outcomes.”
Public Health Agency of Canada’s website states that there are about 12,200 cases of flu-related hospitalizations in Canada each year, and 3,500 deaths. While the illness is at times regarded as something people can push through, it’s more serious than that.
The health agency reports that influenza is ranked among the top 10 leading causes of death in the country. And worldwide, the illness claims between 250,000 to 500,000 lives each year.
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There are preemptive measures, such as getting the flu shot and washing your hands more often, that can help lower the chances of contracting the illness.
But once you have the flu, here’s what Canadians should know about how to handle it — and when it’s time to get help.
Regular flu symptoms vs. severe symptoms
“People who have influenza are going to feel really crummy, they are going to have fevers, they might have muscle pains. They’re going to have fatigue,” Bogoch explains, saying these are typical flu symptoms.
More severe forms of the flu have the same symptoms, Bogoch notes, but it just feels much worse.
“The things to look for are not new symptoms, but more severe symptoms,” he says. “It’s an intense weakness, and such a low appetite and fatigue that they’re really not able to keep up with their required food intake. That’s a problem because you can get quite sick and quite fast, and you might need to be seen in a medical facility.”
Another indication that it’s time to get medical help is difficulty breathing.
“It’s not a little bit of shortness of breath, but progressive shortness of breath,” which includes things like actually “huffing and puffing,” Bogoch explains.
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Relief for people most at risk
Bryna Warshawsky, Ontario Public Health’s medical director for communicable disease, explains that there are ways for those who are most at risk of severe influenza to lower their chances of becoming sick.
Influenza anti-viral drugs, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, work to stop the virus from growing, according to Warshawsky.
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“The way they work is they stop the virus from growing any more, so if you just have a little virus in you, and you take these, they stop you from getting any sicker than you are.”
Warshawsky explains they are most commonly available for elderly people in nursing homes, and those who are admitted to the hospital with the flu. But other at-risk groups such as pregnant women, overweight individuals, and those with underlying medical problems, should consult their doctor about them.
“Those are the people who could end up with pneumonia, end up in hospital or end up dying from the flu,” she said.
How long should flu last?
While it’s different for everyone, typically, flu symptoms should begin to clear up in a couple of days. But Bogoch says a virus will generally run its course, and people will just have to stick it out.
For some relief, the doctor suggests considering acetaminophens for fevers, and electrolytes and fluids to keep hydrated.
— With files from Global News reporters Arti Patel and Katie Dangerfield