What You Need to Know About the Flu and Preventing Sepsis

January 11, 2018

This year’s seasonal flu (influenza) is hitting North America particularly hard. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) January 8 FluView report, 46 states are now reporting widespread flu activity, with 26 states reporting high activity.

Many people refer to stomach or gastrointestinal upsets as the stomach flu or a 24-hour flu, however these illnesses are not influenza. The flu is a serious, contagious respiratory infection and isn’t related to the gastrointestinal tract. Many people who have the flu are sick for 7 to 10 days or longer, and it’s not unusual to experience problems like a persistent cough and fatigue for weeks after. Influenza can also cause serious complications like pneumonia. The CDC reports that since the beginning of October, there have been almost 4,000 people hospitalized with confirmed influenza. This works out to 13.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

Influenza is serious

Most people who must be admitted to the hospital for flu-related problems are 50 years old or older and children younger than five years old, but the flu can affect individuals at any age and can cause sepsis, resulting in severe complications or death. This month alone, there were news reports of a previously healthy 48-year-old navy veteran who was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) with sepsis following the flu, and a 21-year-old who died after Christmas. He was studying to be a fitness trainer.

Influenza is a virus

There is no cure for the flu and ince the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics don’t help treat the infection. There are antiviral medications that may shorten the course of the flu or lessen the severity of the symptoms, but they must be taken within few days of the first signs of illness for the drug to be effective. Treatment for the flu focuses on easing the symptoms, such as lowering the fever, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration, and resting to allow your body to heal.

Influenza is not a “bad cold”

Since the flu is a respiratory virus, some people mistaken the onset for a bad cold. Some of the symptoms are similar, including a cough, sore throat, and a stuffy nose. However, flu symptoms also include muscle and body aches, fever, headache, and fatigue. Young children may vomit and have diarrhea. Flu symptoms also come on very suddenly.

Influenza spreads easily

Influenza is a highly contagious infection, caught when the virus comes in contact with the mucus membranes in your nose. This could occur if someone coughs or sneezes near you, spreading contaminated droplets that you breathe. But the virus can also live on hard surfaces, such as door knobs and hand rails, for up to three days. If you come in contact with the virus and you touch your face, you could infect yourself.

Like the common cold, you can’t become immune to influenza because there are so many strains of the virus. Every year, scientists try to develop an effective seasonal flu vaccine to protect people as the virus makes its way around the world. Unfortunately, trying to find which strain of the flu will be the one that spreads is not an exact science and some years, the vaccine is not as successful as others. This year, for example, there are reports the vaccine may be only 10% effective. However, doctors are still urging people to be vaccinated because this may lessen the severity of the flu and shorten its duration even if you do become ill.

Preventing influenza

Aside from getting an annual flu vaccine, you can reduce your risk of getting the flu by washing your hands frequently, using either soap and water or waterless products. If you have the flu, stay at home to prevent further spread of the virus. Cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand to reduce the risk of leaving the virus where others may touch it.

Influenza and sepsis

Millions of people around the world get the flu and after the virus runs its course, they get better. However, influenza is one of the most common causes of pneumonia, which itself is a common trigger for sepsis. If you know someone who has the flu, watch closely for any symptoms that may indicate that they are getting worse instead of better. If you see two or more of these symptoms, seek emergency medical help as soon as possible and say, “I am concerned about sepsis.” The symptoms include:

     S – Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold

     E – Extreme pain or general discomfort (“worst ever”)

     P – Pale or discolored skin

     S – Sleepiness, difficulty rousing, confusion

     I – “I feel like I might die” feeling

     S – Short of breath


Flu season lasts until the spring, so it’s not too late to be vaccinated. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect and remember, you cannot get influenza from the vaccine itself. You can learn more about sepsis and the flu here.