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Why are people outside high-risk groups dying from the flu?

INDIANAPOLIS — As far as flu seasons go, experts are saying the levels of visits to hospitals and emergency rooms for this one are comparable to the 2009 swine flu.

As such, reports of otherwise healthy or young people dying from the infection are flying around. The stories have been shocking, especially because many of these people were outside the high-risk groups for flu-related death that include pregnant women, small children and the elderly.

So far in the 2017-2018 season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 63 pediatric deaths. This compares to 110 deaths in 2016-2017, 93 in 2015-2016 and 148 in 2014-2015.

The CDC does not know how many deaths are caused overall from the seasonal flu because, among other reasons, flu-related deaths happen a few weeks after someone is infected and are often caused by a secondary illness or a pre-existing condition. From the 2010-2011 to the 2013-2014 seasons, the CDC gives a range of 12,000 (during the 2011-2012 season) to 56,000 (2012-2013) deaths.

Here are some reasons why otherwise healthy people can die from the flu.

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Pneumonia

The infection causes inflammation in your lungs and can attack just after the flu. Harmful bacteria already in your body, or that enters while your immune system is fighting the flu, can multiply when your system is compromised. 

Pneumonia can come on when you're just starting to feel better a few days after the flu has struck, according to Popular Science WebMD outlines symptoms including chills, fever, chest pains, sweating, a cough producing green or bloody mucus, and bluish lips or nails caused from an inadequate amount of oxygen.

Especially if you experience a high fever or it's difficult to breathe, call your doctor or visit a hospital. Depending on the type of pneumonia you have, antibiotics could help.

Heart attack

January article in the New England Journal of Medicine found a "significant association" between respiratory infections, including the flu, and acute myocardial infarction — the medical term for a heart attack. 

The authors found that people were six times more likely to have a heart attack during the first seven days after being diagnosed with the flu than in the year before and after it.

Inflammation and the stress the flu puts on your body can lead to a greater risk of blood clots near your heart, study author Dr. Jeff Kwong told NPR. Most of those who had heart attacks the week they had the flu tended to be older and had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other conditions associated with heart disease, Kwong said.

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Sepsis

Infections in your lungs, kidneys, skin and gut can trigger sepsis. As your body releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight infections, your immune system can go too far and cause inflammation in — and damage — several organs. Sepsis can take hold after pneumonia that occurs after the flu, according to the Sepsis Alliance.

The CDC calls sepsis life-threatening and highlights that without treatment, it can result in damaged tissues, failed organs and death. According to WebMD, symptoms include rapid breathing, confusion, fever and chills, low body temperature, urinating less than usual and diarrhea. Catching it in the early stages is key to treatment and survival.

Wondering if you have the flu? Here's more basic information

Question: What are the symptoms of the flu?

Answer: The CDC lists the following: fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting.

If these symptoms are somewhat mild, the CDC suggests staying home to avoid spreading germs. High-risk groups include young kids, people age 65 and over, pregnant women and those with chronic lung disease, heart disease, asthma, kidney disorders and those on chronic steroids.

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Q: How long are you contagious?

A: You can spread the flu from the day before you exhibit any symptoms until about seven days after. So stay home during this time unless you're seeking medical treatment.

You can get the flu by breathing in droplets that infected people have sneezed or coughed into the air or by touching your face after touching an infected surface.

Q: Does the flu vaccine work?

A: Those who have been vaccinated lessen their risk of contracting influenza B and influenza A (H1N1) the most, according to the CDC.

The most common strain so far this year is A (H3N2). The CDC said the vaccine offers less protection against this one because H3N2 is more likely to have changed than other strains since the vaccine was formulated. The vaccine is about 30% effective against H3N2, according to the CDC.

Experts strongly recommend that everyone over the age of six months be vaccinated.

Q: Is it too late to get a flu shot?

A: No. The flu season can last from October until May. It takes about two weeks for the shot to take hold.

Even those who are allergic to eggs should get the shot this year, said Dr. Christopher Belcher, medical director of infection control for St. Vincent Health. The egg protein in the vaccine isn't enough to set off allergic reactions in most people.

Follow Domenica Bongiovanni on Twitter: @DomenicaReports

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