Far too often confused with the common cold, influenza is a serious respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia. (Fotolia / February 26, 2014)


On Dec. 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 be deadly. Far too often confused with the common cold, influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. These 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 flu vaccine must be formulated every year.

Flu season runs from late November through March. Each year, 35 million to 50 million people are infected with influenza. Annual flu deaths 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 promptly.

Influenza can be spread to other people beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after you become sick. When people cough, sneeze, or talk, droplets spread the virus. Less often, touching a surface can lead to infection.

A flu vaccine definitely is the best protection against influenza. However, those with severe allergy to chicken eggs, anyone who's had a severe allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine in the past, and children younger than six months should see a board-certified allergist and immunologist for the vaccine. If you're sick and have a fever, you should wait until you've recovered before getting a flu shot.

There's a lot you can do to help prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses like the flu:

1. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then discard the tissue carefully in the trash.

2. Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.

4. Try to avoid close contact with sick people. If you are sick with flu-like illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.

5. 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 contagious.

Source: Drs. Lyons and Sullivan are on staff at the Advanced Allergy and Asthma Clinic, Ogden, Utah

(WhatDoctorsKnow is a magazine devoted to up-to-the minute information on health issues from physicians, major hospitals and clinics, universities and health care agencies across the U.S. Online at http://www.whatdoctorsknow.com.)