For healthy people, influenza can be severe but not life threatening. However, even healthy young adults can be sick enough to be in bed for a week with a high fever and muscle aches. When we get a cold or feverish illness in the winter, we generally talk about being sick with “the flu.” For those who have had an actual bout of influenza, the comparison between “the flu” and the real influenza virus is like the difference between falling off your bike and being hit by a truck. We have had people with the influenza virus tell us that it hurts to open their eyes!
The major risk of influenza is that it can make an underlying disease worse. So if you have diabetes or asthma or a heart condition, being sick with influenza can exacerbate those illnesses. In addition, influenza can predispose you to other infections, such as bacterial pneumonia. So while the influenza virus might not kill you, the resulting complications might. The current estimates are that over thirty-six thousand people die each year from complications of influenza. Of that number, less than a hundred are children, so the vast majority of deaths are in adults.
There are antiviral medicines available that shorten the course and decrease the severity of the illness. In addition, they also reduce the spread of the virus to uninfected people. Unfortunately, they need to be started within forty-eight hours of the start of symptoms to be effective. In addition, they are expensive and only shorten the course of the illness by one to two days. Furthermore, some strains of the virus have become resistant to certain medicines, limiting your doctor’s choices. In general, these medicines are recommended more for people who are at high risk of complications from influenza than for otherwise healthy individuals.