4 deadly infections you need to worry about this winter

The flu, pneumonia, whooping cough, and enterovirus D68 all pose serious risks

Published: January 17, 2015 09:15 AM

There's lots of bad news about the flu: It has now reached epidemic levels in many parts of the country, and this season's vaccine isn't very effective, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the flu isn't the only infection you need to worry about right now. Whooping cough is making a resurgence, with California in the midst of its worst epidemic of the disease in 70 years. Pneumonia remains a leading killer, especially of the very young and very old. And researchers are still mystified by cases of paralysis linked to a viral infection called enterovirus D68.

Here's what you need to know about preventing and treating those four common and often dangerous, even deadly, infections.

The flu: Lasts into spring

The risk: Well into flu season, the CDC announced that this year’s vaccine cuts your risk of needing medical care by only 23 percent. That's disturbing. But it doesn't mean you should skip the vaccine. For one thing, the vaccine still offers at least some protection, not only against the current strain, but also other strains that may become more common as the season progresses.

And it’s not too late to get it, either. Flu season often doesn’t peak until February and can extend well into May. Protection is important, because an aver­age of 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu every year, more than 200,000 are hospitalized, and thousands die. It poses special risks to the very old and the very young.

What to do: It's still worth getting vaccinated, especially because it takes about two weeks for protection to kick in. Consider getting the quadrivalent shot, which protects against four strains of the virus. If that’s not available, the standard shot, which protects against three strains, is OK. Fluzone High-Dose, which contains four times the normal flu-antigen dose, is an option for people 65 and older, though it may be more likely to cause side effects. The nasal spray FluMist is best for kids ages 2 to 8. Read more about shopping around for the flu vaccine.

If you develop the flu, antibiotics won’t help because the disease is viral. Instead, stay home and get plenty of sleep and fluids. If necessary, try over-the-counter fever reducers such as aceta­minophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), and naproxen (Aleve and generic).

If you’re at high risk of complications—because you’re 65 or older, are pregnant or recently had a baby, have a chronic condition such as asthma or heart disease, or live in a nursing home—see your doctor right away. The antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) can ease symptoms and reduce complications but work best if you start them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. The drugs aren't game changers: research suggests they cut the duration of symptoms by less than a day. But the CDC emphasizes that the drugs are underused by people most vulnerable to flu complications. Read more about how to prevent and treat the flu.

Pneumonia: 50,000 deaths

The risk: This infection, caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi, sends more than a million people to the hospital each year and kills 50,000, making it the deadliest infection in the U.S. It is most dangerous when contracted by young children and people 65 and older, especially those who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, or who have other health problems, such as diabetes or heart or lung disease. It usually causes fever, congestion, and shortness of breath.

What to do: People 65 and older should be vaccinated. So should anyone 19 and older who smokes; is undergoing chemotherapy; has asthma, diabetes, alcoholism, or cochlear implants; has a condition such as HIV that compromises immunity; or has heart, lung, or liver disease. People who have never been immunized against pneumonia should generally receive two shots, six to 12 months apart, says Neil Fishman, M.D., an infectious disease physician at the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia. If you come down with pneumonia, you’ll probably need antibiotics and lots of rest and fluids. Read more about the vaccines most adults need.

Whooping cough: Not just for kids

The risk: This respiratory illness, also called pertussis, isn’t just for kids. Though it’s particularly deadly in infants, it can cause exhausting, long-lasting coughs in adults. (In China the disease is called the 100-day cough.) And it’s making a comeback. In 2012, 48,277 cases of the bacterial infection were re­port­ed in the U.S., the most since 1955—and many more cases probably aren’t diagnosed. The disease has hit California particularly hard, with the state reporting nearly 10,000 cases in 2014.

And because vaccine immunity wanes over time, it’s important to stay up to date on the shots, both to protect yourself and to keep you from spreading it to babies and young children who have not been vaccinated or have not finished their full series of shots. Early symptoms are similar to the common cold, but after a week or two they progress to a severe cough and the characteristic whoop­-ing sound.

What to do: Children need five doses of the DTaP vaccine (it protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) by age 6. People who need a booster, called Tdap, include teens, those 19 to 64 if they didn’t get one earlier, and people 65 and older who are in close contact with infants. Early treatment with antibiotics can lessen symptoms and prevent the spread of the disease. Read more about the vaccines most children need.

Enterovirus D68: This year’s surprise scourge

The risk: Infections similar to entero­virus D68 emerge each year, but the current version is more virulent. The infection has sent more than 1,200 people to the doctor, and about 70 have experienced poliolike symptoms; at least 12 people who tested positive for the virus died. It usually hits children hardest, though older adults are also at risk. Early symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and achiness.

What to do: There is no vaccine, so prevention hinges on good hygiene and steering clear of people who are sick. That’s especially true for children with asthma and other breathing disorders, which make them prone to serious complications. And because it’s a virus, anti­biotics won’t work against it. Instead, treatment involves rest and fluids; some children with severe cases have had to be put on a ventilator. Read more about how important hand washing is in preventing the spread of infections.

Editor's Note:

A version of this article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Health News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more