Every year, a number of people across the country die after contracting the flu. While this year is no exception, one flu death in California is getting attention. Why? The viral infection killed a healthy 32-year-old man. Details on the death are scarce, but the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency reports that the man, who has not been publicly identified, was “otherwise healthy” and died from the flu last week.
It’s unusual to hear of healthy, young people dying from the flu but it happens. Last year, a 21-year-old aspiring personal trainer died from complications of the flu just days after he first started having symptoms. A 37-year-old mother of two also died of the flu last January after caring for her sick kids.
“In most influenza seasons, the deaths are clustered among the very old and very young,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s pretty unusual to see young, otherwise healthy people die of the flu in non-pandemic years, but it does happen. There aren’t zero deaths in other age groups.”
While it’s unclear whether this man was vaccinated against the flu, the mother of two and trainer who died last year weren’t. That can be a factor, Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and an associate professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We just don’t know, nor can we predict why some people die of the flu,” he says. “This is another reason why people should get the flu shot. Vaccinated people can still get the flu but develop a milder illness than if they didn’t get the vaccine.”
Outside of that, it “isn’t clear” why some young, healthy people die of the flu, Watkins says. “Everybody’s infection and their experience with the flu is a little bit idiosyncratic,” Adalja says. “It has to do with the genetic makeup of your immune system, what you’ve been exposed to in the past, your overall immunity to influenza, and whether or not you were vaccinated.”
Some people can have what Adalja calls an “exaggerated immune response” to the virus, and that can cause severe pneumonia, respiratory failure, and other serious complications that can lead to death.
If you suspect that you have the flu, Adalja recommends visiting your doctor ASAP. There, they’ll likely test you for the flu and, if the test results are positive, will give you an antiviral therapy like Tamiflu or Xofluza. That can also shorten the course of your illness and lower the odds that you’ll have serious complications from the flu, he says.
Doctors stress that getting your flu shot is a crucial part of lowering the odds you’ll have serious complications or even die if you happen to contract the flu. “This happens every season,” Adalja says. “Get vaccinated against the flu. It’s not too late.”
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