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Man sick with the flu.

Why is the flu so dangerous?

Even though their symptoms are sometimes alike, the flu is much more serious than a common cold. But what makes it such a dangerous illness?

There are multiple reasons why flu can lead to severe health problems or even death, explains Piedmont internal medicine physician Elizabeth Jaggers, M.D. To understand its risks, though, you first have to know what the flu really is.

“When people say stomach flu, they’re usually just referring to another virus or bacteria that can cause a gastrointestinal illness,” Dr. Jaggers explains. “What we think of as the flu is respiratory.”

The flu should always be taken seriously because its dangers can multiply fast.

What makes the flu more dangerous than a cold?

When you have a cold, your body recognizes what’s happening, Dr. Jaggers says. Your immune system will kick in to fight the germs, and in time, you’ll recover.

But flu viruses are much wilier: They mutate and shift, and strains can evolve so completely that the human body no longer recognizes them. At that point, Dr. Jaggers explains, the body can’t effectively fight off the virus.

There are several types of flu, but the most dangerous one for humans is usually type A. These are the viruses that cause pandemics, including the pandemic of 1918 that killed millions of people around the world.

“That was the first time that we know of that we’ve seen H1N1,” Dr. Jaggers says. The pandemic of 2009, commonly known as swine flu, was also caused by an H1N1 virus.

What does flu do to your body?

So what happens if you come down with the flu? It’s a little different for everyone.

With a typical case, it’s the complications from the flu – not the flu itself – that can be most dangerous, Dr. Jaggers says. Young children, older people, and people with preexisting respiratory issues (like asthma) are at especially high risk for problems like bacterial pneumonia.

A compromised immune system can also mean trouble. People who are undergoing chemotherapy or have diabetes, for example, should take special care to avoid becoming ill.

But before any of that begins, the flu itself must take hold. Once you’ve contracted a virus, you won’t show symptoms for the first 24 to 48 hours, Dr. Jaggers says. Meanwhile, you’re still contagious and may spread the illness to friends, family and coworkers.

“It’s replicating in your cells,” Dr. Jaggers says.

When symptoms do appear, they tend to hit you very suddenly. Those symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue

Though these signs may not seem too worrisome, you shouldn’t try to ride out the flu by yourself. Its severity can quickly escalate.

“You need to seek help through your physician,” Dr. Jaggers says. If you experience shortness of breath, seek help at your local emergency room.

Although people with flu can die from secondary infections, they can also die from the flu itself. If the illness grows severe enough, your body’s inflammatory response can kill you.

How to protect yourself from flu

Dr. Jaggers recommends the following strategies for staying healthy:

Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently (or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer in a pinch). Wipe down the surfaces of common areas, and pay special attention to high-touch locations like computer keyboards and phone screens.

Get a flu shot. Flu season lasts through fall and winter (and sometimes into the spring). A flu shot is one of the best ways to protect yourself, and you need a new one every year.

Concerned about flu shots? Don’t be – you can’t catch the flu from your shot, and while the vaccine doesn’t offer full immunity from every flu strain, it greatly reduces your chances of serious illness.

Dr. Jaggers encourages nervous patients to talk with their physicians openly and honestly.

“Go in with an open mind,” she says.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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