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How to Keep the Flu from Turning Into Pneumonia

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Photo: Westend61 / Getty Images

This year's flu season is no joke—it's on track to be the worst in about a decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that hospitalization rates for people with the flu are the highest ever recorded at this point in a flu season.

You might already know a lot about the flu, like that the virus is highly contagious. It's also potentially dangerous (and can even be deadly). And it is possible to get two different strains of it in one season.

If you already have the flu, you'll want to make sure you're doing everything you can to keep the virus from turning into pneumonia. Pneumonia is an inflammation and infection of your lungs—and studies show that up to a third of pneumonia cases stem from respiratory viruses like the flu.

Why? Well, first, a look at a set of healthy lungs. "One of the ways you keep your lungs clear and your body free of infection is simply by breathing in and out deeply so that you can clear out mucus, secretions, and other pathogens that can enter our system," says Noah Greenspan, D.P.T., a board-certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy and rehabilitation and the founder of Pulmonary Wellness & Rehabilitation Center in New York City. If your body senses an allergen or anything that it sees as a threat? It sets off a small inflammatory response and creates mucus to help you get rid of those particles, says Greenspan. (Related: How to Get Rid of Seasonal Allergy Symptoms)

The flu, though, weakens your immune system, he says. (Pneumonia is more common in people with compromised immune systems—children, the elderly, pregnant women, smokers, or people with chronic illnesses.) Specifically, a constricted airway and inflammation can slow down the movement of air and hinder your ability to clear mucus and secretions.

Think of dusting your home: "If you dust a little each day, there is no buildup and your house stays relatively dust-free," he says. "If you now have difficulty dusting for some reason, the dust, or in this case, the mucus, secretions, and bacteria, start to build up."

It's this inflammation, increased mucus production, and less overall cleanup that create the perfect breeding ground for other viruses and bacteria to spread. Since pneumonia is an infection of your lungs, if you have it, you might notice a persistent, productive cough (mucus or phlegm comes out), sometimes with yellow-green phlegm; chest pain, particularly during deep breathing; shortness of breath doing things that wouldn't otherwise leave you winded; overall fatigue and malaise; and a fever, says Greenspan.

It's crucial to call your doc if you think you could have pneumonia. Depending on what type of pneumonia you have (bacteria or viral), you'll likely need either antibiotics (for bacterial) or antivirals (for viral), he says. Docs can often ID pneumonia by listening to your lungs, but they might also order an X-ray, pulmonary function test, and blood or sputum cultures to ID the cause and better steer treatment.

What's your best bet for avoiding flu-related pneumonia? Number one: Get the flu shot (no, it's not too late) to avoid the flu in the first place. Also, do all you can to avoid respiratory infections in general, which means keeping up with immune-boosting habits like sleep as well as being diligent about basic hygiene. "Frequent hand washing is your single best defense against introducing viruses or bacteria into your system," says Greenspan. "You really need to be washing your hands each and every time you come in contact with a potential source of infection." And right now, that means way more times than just before you eat or after you go to the bathroom.

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