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How do children die from the flu? Ohio girl's death raises concerns

In a tragic story that's making headlines across the country: A fourth-grade girl from Ohio died just one day after being diagnosed with strep throat and influenza.

According to a Facebook post from Mason City Schools, Sable Gibson was diagnosed Tuesday morning, went into cardiac arrest Tuesday afternoon and died Wednesday evening.

Please join us in keeping the Gibson family in our daily thoughts and prayers as they navigate these very difficult...

Posted by Mason City Schools on Thursday, February 21, 2019

Also this week, reports came in of a New Jersey toddler who died from the flu earlier this month.

While this year's flu season has been milder overall than last year's, to date 41 children have died across the country from flu-related causes.

The number of flu-related deaths varies widely from year to year, but even during a relatively mild flu season the illness claims thousands of lives. The CDC reports that over a three-decade period starting in the mid-1970s, the number of flu deaths in the U.S. ranged from a low of about 3,000 a year to as many as 49,000 in a bad year.

Last year's flu season was particularly deadly, claiming the lives of more than 80,000 Americans, including a record 185 children. 

How effective is this year's flu vaccine? 01:20

While most people will recover from a bout with the flu, complications can arise, some of which can be severe or fatal. The illness can turn deadly for anyone, but it is most dangerous for adults over the age of 65 and children under the age of 5.

How can the flu lead to death?

The influenza virus itself can lead to death if it leads to serious breathing problems and severe dehydration. However, the more common scenario is a complication from the infection, explains Dr. Claire Bocchini, an infectious disease specialist at Texas Children's Hospital.

She says bacterial pneumonia is the most common complication from the flu that leads to death.

"This happens because the flu virus injures the lungs and causes inflammation that then makes it easier for bacteria to invade the lungs and cause a very serious infection," Bocchini told CBS News. "The bacterial infection can make it hard for children to breathe, and their lungs struggle to get enough oxygen for their body."

Another complication that can lead to death is sepsis. This occurs when the body overreacts to an infection. Sepsis can affect multiple organ systems, sometimes causing organ failure and resulting in death.

Other rare complications from the flu that can be fatal include infection of the heart (or myocarditis), which can cause sudden death or heart failure, and infection of the brain (or encephalitis), which can lead to seizures and dangerous swelling of the brain. 

Young children and older adults are most at risk for these complications, as well as pregnant women and anyone with chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and neurologic conditions.

When to seek emergency medical attention

If the flu becomes severe, it's important to seek medical attention right away to prevent further complications.

According to the CDC, emergency warning signs in children include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

In teenagers and adults, warning signs can include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, confusion, dizziness, and severe or persistent vomiting.

If you or your child have these symptoms, it is important to get medical treatment right away.

How to protect your family

The best defense against the flu is to get the flu vaccine. The CDC recommends everyone age 6 months and older get a flu shot each year. If you or your child have not received the flu vaccine yet this year, experts say it is not too late. Flu season peaks in winter but can linger into the spring.

While the flu vaccine doesn't guarantee that you won't get sick, doctors say it does reduce the chances, and if you do get sick it may be less severe.

If you have a young child who develops flu-like symptoms, such as fever, body aches and fatigue, it is important to see your pediatrician to see if an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu (also available as generic oseltamivir), Relenza or Rapivab is needed.

Other steps the CDC recommends to prevent flu include:

  • Avoid close contact with others, including hugging, kissing, or shaking hands.
  • Move away from people before coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue then throw it away, or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve, completely covering your mouth and nose.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects such as toys and doorknobs.
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