What Complications Do Flu Shots Prevent?
In a fairly recent study, statistics show that deaths caused by the flu have risen and are higher than they were twenty years ago. This is somewhat surprising, since a vaccine for the flu virus has been readily available for nearly forty years. It also emphasizes that simply not treating the flu is really not a viable option. Some complications that can result from neglecting to treat the illness are merely uncomfortable, while others can be life threatening.
Why the increase?
Every year, 36000 (as opposed to 20,000 twenty years ago) people die from the influenza virus in the United States; this is one reason why the CDC encourages people, especially those who are elderly and those whose health is already compromised, to become vaccinated.
The aging population in the United States is one reason why flu deaths are more common; unfortunately, only 65% of elderly Americans get vaccinated from the flu virus. This, coupled with the fact that the flu virus isn't as effective among the most susceptible segments of the population (the elderly, the very young, and others with compromised immune systems) is the main reason the death rate has risen.
When the Flu Becomes Deadly
The flu virus, in and of itself, is not what actually causes people to expire; complications from the illness do. After a person has suffered through a bout with the flu, the epithelial cells (which act as a protective barrier) surrounding the lungs are so damaged that a secondary infection can easily take over.
While the symptoms of bacterial pneumonia are similar to the flu virus, a bacterial infection comes on very quickly because there are very few antibodies to fight it off. During the Spanish flu pandemic, many victims fell prey to the flu virus, then were dead from pneumonia or other bacterial complications a mere 24 hours later.
Today, there are anti-viral medications, such as Tamiflu, that can be taken at the onset of the illness to reduce the severity and duration of the illness. Again, if you become sick with the flu, the goal is to try treat symptoms in order to keep secondary infection at bay.
Other Risk Factors
Pneumonia is certainly not the only flu complication, although it's clearly the most dangerous. Secondary infections can cause severe bouts of sinusitis, bronchitis, or ear infections. While there is no cure for the flu, should any of these secondary infections complicate the illness, there are antibiotics that can clear them up relatively quickly.
Risk Factors for Children
Most parents are surprised to learn that complications from the flu are the 6th leading cause of death in children four years old and younger. Like the elderly, very young children are not old enough to have developed immune systems that are strong enough to keep pneumonia at bay. Babies depend on breast milk to provide them with stronger immune systems, because they have not been exposed to enough germs to build up their antibodies.
This is, of course, a Catch-22 situation; to become more immune to various illnesses, one has to become exposed to them. But for a very young child, exposure to the flu virus can be potentially lethal. This is why the CDC recommends that young children, along with those over the age of 65, get a yearly flu virus.
Certainly, death from the flu is somewhat avoidable, but keeping those who are at risk vaccinated on a yearly basis is crucial in keeping flu related mortality rates at a minimum.