With this year's flu already reporting higher rates of hospitalization and deaths than what's typically expected for this time of year, many are wondering how to protect themselves from the flu. The answer mainly lies in good health practices and getting a flu shot — but just because it's preventable doesn't mean it can't kill.
Wondering how the flu can kill you? Doctors say there are multiple ways.
Influenza can directly cause death, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told Live Science. The flu virus can cause such overwhelming inflammation in a person's lungs that they die due to respiratory failure. Severe damage to the lungs makes it impossible for enough oxygen to pass through the lung tissue into the blood, leading to death.
Adalja says when someone dies directly from the flu, it happens very quickly.
The flu can also kill indirectly — meaning it leaves you more vulnerable to other health problems that can lead to death. For example, certain groups of people, like older adults or people with chronic illnesses can be more susceptible to bacteria that causes pneumonia when they have the flu. The Mayo Clinic calls pneumonia "the most serious complication" of the flu and says it can be deadly.
When someone who has the flu contracts pneumonia, the pnuemonia is considered a secondary bacterial infection. Adalja says death from such secondary infections usually occurs about a week or so after the person first got sick, because it takes time for the secondary infection to set in.
But pneumonia isn't the only indirect way the flu can be deadly. Multiple organ failure can also occur throughout the body, which is when multiple organs stop working properly.
And according to the CDC, the flu can also trigger other serious complications, including inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues. Infection can also lead to an extreme, body-wide inflammatory response known as sepsis, which can be life-threatening, the CDC says.
The 2017-2018 flu season has been particularly harsh because experts say the predominant strain that's spreading, H3N2, tends to cause more severe symptoms than other strains.
The CDC says that during the week that ended Jan. 13, 49 states reported widespread flu activity and there were a reported 31.5 hospitalizations for every 100,000 people. That number is rising rapidly, as compared with 22.7 per 100,000 for the week ending January 6.
Officials can't predict what the final outcome for flu season will be this year in terms of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, but Adalja suspects it will be a notable one.
"I don't know what the final tally will be in this flu season, [but] I suspect it will be one of the worst ones we've had in recent years," Adalja said.
As for how to protect yourself against the flu? Health officials recommend a yearly flu vaccine for everyone ages 6 months and older, because it's still the best way to prevent flu. And studies have found that, even if a person does catch the flu, their illness is milder if they've been vaccinated. "Even lower levels of protection" are better than none, Adalja said.
Aside from getting a vaccine every year, there are other smaller ways to protect against the flu. Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth, as germs spread easiest that way. Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer when soap and water isn't available.
If you're experiencing flu-like symptoms (high fever, headache, muscle aches, cough, sore throat, tiredness, runny or stuffy nose, chills, headache, nausea or vomiting), it's important to know when to seek emergency help. If you have trouble breathing or feel short of breath, feel pressure or pain in your chest or stomach, are dehydrated, feel confused or can't stop vomiting, it's time to seek emergency help right away.