On December 20, 2009, 32-year-old actress Brittany Murphy died of flu-related complications in her Beverly Hills, Calif. home. Five months later her husband, Simon Monjack, was found dead in the same home with the same cause of death -- flu-related complications.
Ignoring the flu can certainly be deadly. Far too often, confused with the common cold, the flu (influenza) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. They are unique among respiratory viruses because they're amazingly adaptable and have a history of "drifting" and "shifting" into other, sometimes more lethal, combinations. That's why a new influenza vaccine has to be prepared every year.
Flu season is from late November through March. Each year, 35 to 50 million people are infected with influenza. Annual deaths from influenza in the United States have ranged from as few as 3,000 to as high as 49,000.
People who develop flu may quickly develop influenza pneumonia. If you begin to have a rapid breathing rate, rapid heart rate, lightheadedness or shortness of breath, you should go to the emergency room or call your doctor. The virus also can damage the lungs and set up a pneumonia caused by bacteria. If you develop shaking chills, chest pain or pain when you breathe, or bring up sputum containing blood, you should go to the emergency room or call your doctor.
Influenza can be spread to other people beginning one day before any symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming sick. When people cough, sneeze, or talk, droplets spread the virus. Less often, touching a surface holding a flu virus can lead to infection.
A flu vaccine definitely is the best protection against influenza. However, those with severe allergy to chicken egg, anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine in the past, and children younger than 6 months should not be immunized. If you are sick and have a fever, you should wait until you have recovered before getting the flu shot.
There's a lot you can do to help prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses like the flu.
* Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Discard the tissue in the trash.
* Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
* Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
* Try to avoid close contact with sick people. The Center for Disease Control recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, if you are sick with flu-like syptoms.
* Be prepared in case you get sick and need to stay home for a week or so. Have a supply of over-the-counter medicines, hand sanitizer, tissues and other related items to avoid trips out in public while you are sick and contagious.
Dr. Vicki Lyons, MD, is a board-certified and fellowship-trained allergist and immunologist. She has been practicing for 15 years. Contact her at 801-387-4850.