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Flu Study Finds Two Most Common Non-Respiratory Complications

September 17, 2020

Although it’s tough to pinpoint the exact timing and duration of flu season, influenza activity often begins to increase in October. That’s why now is the time to start preparing for it. You can start by applying what you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about the way viruses spread and use the results of a recent study to help you understand the importance of protecting yourself.

Flu is a respiratory disease and respiratory complications, such as pneumonia, are the most common reason for people to be hospitalized from flu. Pneumonia causes inflammation in the lungs, which is why it makes older adults, smokers, and people with heart or lung problems especially prone to pneumonia-related complications. But researchers made a bit of a surprising discovery when it comes to non-respiratory complications.

Let’s take a look at what researchers found and talk about the steps you can start taking to decrease your risk of getting the flu.

What The Flu Study Found

Researchers at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention looked at the medical records of more than 76,000 adult flu patients. They were hospitalized from 2010 through 2018. Most had an acute respiratory complication as expected, but nearly half also had a non-respiratory complication.

In fact, the results, which are published in JAMA Network Open show that after pneumonia, the next two most commonly occurring flu complications were non-respiratory: sepsis (23%) and acute kidney injury (20%), and acute cardiovascular events.

Sepsis occurs when chemicals released in the bloodstream to fight an infection trigger inflammation throughout the body. This can cause multiple organ systems to fail.

Acute kidney injury is a condition that develops when the kidneys suddenly can't filter waste from the blood.

Studies have shown that flu is associated with an increase in heart attacks and stroke. A 2018 study found that the risk of heart attack was 6 times higher within a week of confirmed flu infection. These findings were most pronounced for older adults and those experiencing their first heart attack.

In this most recent study, researchers found the flu victims with pneumonia, sepsis and acute kidney injury were more likely to be admitted to intensive care. And some even died while hospitalized. The findings underscore the fact that non-respiratory complications can be just as severe as a respiratory complication.

What The Flu Study Also Found

The study also found that more than 80% of flu patients with only acute non-respiratory complications were less likely to receive antivirals compared to those with respiratory complications. Researchers suggest that this is a possible missed opportunity to more effectively treat influenza infections in hospitalized patients.

The Flu And Underlying Conditions

This study puts a spotlight on the increased risk of flu-related complications for people with underlying medical conditions. Among people with at least one acute respiratory complication, more than 40% were dealing with an underlying respiratory medical condition like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

And among those with acute non-respiratory complications, there was a significantly higher frequency of underlying medical conditions, including:

  • Metabolic (52%)
  • Cardiovascular (51%)
  • Renal (33%)

The findings emphasize the increased risk of flu complications for people with underlying medical conditions. It’s also a reminder as to why getting the flu shot and the prompt use of antiviral medication is so important for people with underlying health conditions.

To get the flu shot, contact your North Ohio Heart/Ohio Medical Group primary care physician, or if you don’t have one, you can find a doctor online.

You can also learn more about ways to decrease your risk of getting the flu, our guide “How To Get Rid Of The Flu or Not Get It At All” can help. Download it today to learn the most effective ways to avoid the flu.

And if you’d like to learn more about the characteristics of both influenza and COVID-19, visit our new interactive webpage. You’ll find all of the similarities and differences between the viruses and other ways to protect yourself this flu season.

Flu vs Coronavirus