Colds and flu

04 September 2019

How to avoid a secondary infection after having flu

You've had a bad bout of flu, but you’re on the mend. However, secondary infections such as pneumonia and other respiratory infections are linked to flu. Here’s how to avoid serious complications.

When you’ve had the flu, you're always relieved when your symptoms start to wear off – and you want to get back into your normal routine as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, if you're not careful, you can develop serious secondary infections, which can require another trip to the doctor, more time off, hospitalisation, and even death, warn experts.

The influenza virus is a viral strain that changes every year. It may compromise your immune system so much that your body becomes susceptible to other bacterial pathogens such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, the pathogen responsible for causing conditions like pneumonia, sinus infection, ear infection, meningitis and even bacteraemia (blood infection).

What makes flu complications more likely?

According to a paper published in 2017  in Frontiers of Microbiology, respiratory infections caused by the outbreak of influenza have caused a significant number of deaths over the years and is the fourth-highest cause of death globally.

What then makes flu-related infections and deaths so dire in the modern age of medical advancement? According to recent research, the overuse of antibiotics – which causes bacteria to become resistant – as well as vaccine-hesitancy are key factors in the higher prevalence of secondary infections.

The severity of the bacterial infection you may get as a result of a bout of flu, is determined by the strain of flu, and can be exacerbated by a lack of proper care while you're sick. There are also individuals who are more susceptible to complications from flu:

  • People older than 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • People with heart and lung disease
  • Infants and children under four years old

How to avoid secondary infections

Even if you don’t fall into a more susceptible category, flu complications can still happen. Here are ways to protect yourself against secondary infections.

1. Know the signs and act fast

Know when your symptoms are on the mend, and go back to the doctor immediately if there are signs of a relapse, i.e. if you develop a fever and severe sweating; if you have trouble breathing; if you experience severe pain in your chest; or if you produce more green-coloured phlegm.

2. Stay home for as long as possible

In most cases your doctor will prescribe rest and will treat individual flu symptoms as they arise. Stick to the time your doctor has booked you off and don't hesitate to speak up if you feel your body needs more rest. Don’t go back to work while you still have symptoms, as you can expose yourself to bacteria that may attack your already weakened immune system.

Because it's not easy to get proper sleep while your stuffy nose and hacking cough keep you up at night, try to nap as much as possible, instead of reading or watching TV.  

3. Get a flu vaccination

While a flu vaccination doesn't guarantee that you'll avoid the flu, there is a 90% chance that it will protect you against at least three or four seasonal strains. If you do get ill, it might simply be a cold, or a respiratory infection, which means that your chances of developing a secondary infection are much smaller. 

You might be thinking, “But what if my immune system is already strong?” You are, however, not only protecting yourself, but also those around you who have a higher risk of complications (see above).

4. Boost your immune system and limit your exposure to bacteria

Not only is staying home recommended in order for you to rest, but also to avoid exposure to bacteria. Practice good flu hygiene at home – wash your hands and the surfaces you’ve touched and regularly change your bed sheets.

If you're a smoker, try and avoid or limit smoking while you're ill to avoid weakening your lungs and expose yourself to conditions like pneumonia. Try and eat as many fresh, antioxidant rich foods and drink clear fluids such as herbal tea. Avoid sugar, processed food and alcohol, as these make your body more susceptible to inflammation.

5. Remember, you are not out of the woods yet

Even when back at work, remember that your immune system is still recuperating. Take things easy, and don’t jump back into your exercise regime unless you are certain that you are ready (follow these guidelines), eat plenty of healthy food, take an immune booster and get plenty of sleep.

Image credit: iStock


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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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