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Here's How to Know When It's Time to See a Doctor for the Flu

Korin Miller

The flu may be a common (and generally harmless) illness, but in rare cases it can be deadly. So it's crucial to know how to listen to your body and seek medical attention if you're experiencing certain symptoms.

That's the message that Kyler Baughman's family wants to share after the 21-year-old died recently from flu-related complications.

Kyler Baughman was in great shape and was studying to become a personal trainer, his mom Beverly Baughman told WPIX. But when he came home to visit over the holidays, he didn’t look well. "We saw him the 23rd for our family Christmas get-together and we noticed he wasn't feeling well,” she said. “He looked rundown and had a bit of a snotty nose."

Kyler Baughman returned to work after Christmas but came home early because he wasn’t feeling well. "He kinda just laid down and went about his day and that was the day he was coughing and said his chest hurt, he had a mild cough," said his fiancée Olivia Marcanio. "I think he thought, 'I just got the flu, I'll be alright. I'll go rest a little bit,'" Beverly Baughman said.

But Kyler Baughman began running a fever on and off, and within two days, he went to the emergency room. He died less than a day later from organ failure due to septic shock caused by the flu, Beverly Baughman told WPIX, adding that her son didn’t get a flu shot. “It doesn't seem real," she said.

Flu deaths aren’t common, but they happen more often than you’d think.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people die from the flu each year. That's partly because these deaths are often attributed to flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, sepsis, or heart failure, which means the flu may not actually be listed as the cause of death, the CDC says on its website.

But, according to recent CDC estimates, 7 percent of all deaths in the U.S. during the week of December 23, 2017 were related to pneumonia or the flu.

While anyone can get the flu, it’s rare for a young, otherwise healthy person to actually die from it. “Typically those that are most vulnerable to serious flu complications are older adults, very young children, pregnant women, and people with underlying health conditions,” Sherif Mossad, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. “It is very unlikely that a young, healthy person would die from the flu.”

Still, it can happen, and Baughman's story isn't the only one to make national news lately. In late November, Alani “Joie” Murrieta, a 20-year-old mother of two, died from complications of the flu, according to a GoFundMe page set up by her family to help pay for funeral expenses.

It’s hard to know why some young people end up with severe complications of the flu, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. Some cases may be due to an overactive immune response to the virus—it can cause an extreme inflammatory response in the body and lead to sepsis, which is a life-threatening response to infection, Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital in Ohio, tells SELF. And it's possible that someone with a severe case of the flu or flu-related complications could interpret their symptoms as something they can recover from at home, delaying crucial medical attention.

The majority of flu cases will get better with rest and time, but it’s important to be aware that things can also get very serious.

Most people who come down with a mild case of the flu will be just fine after staying in bed for a while, Dr. Watkins says. But people with more severe symptoms and those who are at a higher risk for complications (because they have asthma or diabetes, for instance) should check in with their doctor. They may be prescribed an anti-viral medication, like Tamiflu, which can reduce your symptoms by one to two days and help prevent complications.

Tamiflu can also help with mild cases of the flu and it doesn’t hurt to call your doctor and ask for it, even if you suspect that your case of the flu isn’t overly serious. “I use it quite liberally,” Dr. Adalja says. “Even for mild cases, it can decrease symptoms and prevent complications.” Your doctor might even prescribe it over the phone, saving you a trip to their office and lowering the odds you’ll infect others, Dr. Adalja says.

The flu generally causes fever, chills, muscle aches, a cough, congestion, runny nose, and fatigue. But if you find that your symptoms are getting worse, you’re experiencing shortness of breath, or you have a fever that’s not responding to over-the-counter medications, it’s time to go to the ER, Dr. Adalja says.

While stories like these are tragic and terrifying, they're an important reminder to listen to your body.

“You’re going to hear about the severe cases of the flu,” Dr. Adalja says. “But it’s nothing to panic about.” What you should do is get your flu shot, if you haven’t already.

You may have heard that this year’s shot isn’t very effective at preventing cases of H3N2, the predominant strain of the flu circulating, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help at all. “The vaccine is not 100 percent effective, but those who get it and then get the flu generally have a less severe illness than those who did not get vaccinated,” Dr. Watkins says.

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