How NOT to die from the flu (and signs you could) | The Survival Doctorby James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Okay, you’ve had the flu, or maybe even a bad cold. You’re finally getting over it—actually feeling pretty good—when, boom, the symptoms return. What’s happened? Are you having a relapse?

That’s a typical way many people come down with complications of the flu. It’s not the only way. Some get them while they still have the flu. Either way, complications are what usually put flu sufferers—200,000 or more a year of them—in the hospital. They’re what thousands die from.

Unlike with the flu, bacteria is usually the culprit for complications, so it’s time to get to the doctor ASAP. Ah, but you know where this is leading if you’ve read many of my posts. What if you’re having trouble getting to the doctor or a clinic?

Here are some tips that might pull you through.

First, try to avoid the complications. I know that’s obvious, but many people don’t do this because one of the basic preventers is rest. Your body is busy fighting off a bad-news bug. Don’t add extra stress by being Mr. or Ms. Macho and trying to do physical or even mental labor while you’re running a fever. Even afterwards, ease back into things.

Also try to eat a good, balanced diet. “Feed a cold, starve a fever” is not good advice.

Flu Complications and What You Can Do

I’ll start with the ones most likely to kill you.

1. Pneumonia. This is the most common serious complication. Anyone can get it, but people most at risk include young children; adults over 65; smokers; and anyone with a chronic disease, especially if it includes the lungs (asthma, emphysema, etc.).

Clues are increased shortness of breath; chest discomfort or pain; a sudden shaking chill followed minutes to hours later by sweating; or just being really, really sick.

What to Do: Click here for my post on what to do for pneumonia. A good way to decrease your risk for pneumonia is to take the pneumonia vaccine. Click here for CDC recommendations on who should consider it.

2. Chronic illness that the flu makes worse. The flu can take a toll on anyone. Your body has to use a lot of energy to fight it off. Your heart rate goes up, and you must pump more blood. You need to be strong enough, and have airways working right enough, to cough up those deep secretions. To fight off the flu efficiently, your immune system must be working well. (It’s not at its best, for example, if you have diabetes or HIV, or you’re taking certain medicines or getting on up there in age.)

If one of your organs—say your heart, lungs, or kidneys—or your immune system is already working at its upper limits of efficiency, a bad case of the flu can add such a load that it can’t keep up with the demand. And if one organ fails, it puts extra stress on other organs. They may fail also.

What to Do: Make sure you have your illness under control as much as possible before and during the flu. That means proper diet, taking your meds correctly, and avoiding smoke. If you get the flu, get to your doctor when you can. Many need extra rest and care, with meticulous medication monitoring. And your doctor is probably going to have a lower threshold for putting you in the hospital if it looks like you may go over the edge.

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3. Dehydration. The combination of lack of appetite and fever makes dehydration a risk. Severe dehydration can be deadly.

What to Do: To prevent dehydration, drink a couple or three quarts of fluids per day, whether your feel like it or not. Most anything you can tolerate will suffice, except alcohol or excessive caffeine. If you can’t drink the fluids, get to the doctor as soon as you can. Click here for my post on more ways to treat dehydration.


Two other fairly common complications of the flu are a bacterial sinus or ear infection. Although either can be deadly (think meningitis or encephalitis), usually they can be treated easily (compared to the other three) with antibiotics.

So stay well, folks. If you get sick, take care of yourself (see this post). And don’t ignore warning signs.

Have any of you ever had complications from the flu? What were they? How did you get rid of them? Do you know of anyone who has died from flu complications?

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