How The Flu Can Affect Your Lungs, According To A Respiratory Therapist

Returning every year during the fall and winter months, the flu is reported to have been responsible for up to 41 million cases of infection over the decade between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To better understand the ways in which the flu can affect our respiratory health, we spoke to Mandy DeVries, M.S.-RCL/Ed, RRT, RRT-NPS, Director of Education at the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) to shed some light on the topic.

"To further understand how the infection causes damage, it is important first to understand how our lungs work normally," DeVries tells Health Digest. Explaining the process step-by-step, she states, "When you breathe, air enters through your nose or mouth. Next, it passes over your vocal cords into your trachea." From there, the air is routed through various small tubes within our respiratory tract. "It then branches into smaller tubes called bronchi, which branch into even smaller tubes known as bronchioles, which end in alveoli at their most microscopic level," DeVries explains. "These tiny sacs are where oxygen from inhaled air enters the bloodstream, and carbon dioxide from oxygenated blood exits our body via exhalation."

How our body responds to the flu virus

DeVries goes on to explain how the virus makes its way into our system in the first place and how the body responds in return. "The viruses that cause influenza gain entry to our bodies through respiratory mucosa that binds to the cell wall," she states. "This causes inflammation that produces high levels of cytokines, which are inflammatory hormones produced by immune cells." She explains that this prompts excess mucus secretion into our airways, which can lead to cough, difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest pain, fever, and more.

Additionally, DeVries states that the flu can pose other risks as well. "People are more likely to develop serious complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia when infected with the flu virus," she says. However, with proper medical treatment, she explains that a patient's chances of severe infection can be reduced. "Respiratory therapists play an essential role in mitigating these risks," DeVries states. Even so, can the flu have a lasting impact on our long-term health?

Potential long-term effects of viral infection

Depending on an individual's health status, the type of strain contracted, and more, the likelihood for negative long-term effects from the flu can vary from person to person, DeVries explains. "Generally speaking, for an otherwise healthy individual who contracts the flu virus that does not result in complications like pneumonia or bronchitis, any impacts to the lungs may be short-lived," she says. "However, individuals with existing lung diseases or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to long-term respiratory consequences from influenza." 

She states that such consequences can include bronchial obstruction from excess mucus production, greater risk of infection, and lower levels of immunity, amongst other outcomes. "Additionally, people suffering from underlying cardiovascular disease may experience pulmonary hypertension exacerbated by the inflammatory response triggered by viruses," she says.

However, DeVries stresses that treatment options are available, ranging from prescription antibiotics to chest physical therapy. "These treatments are typically effective at reducing further damage while allowing ample time for healing so that most symptoms do not become a prolonged burden moving forward," she offers encouragingly.

How to aid your body in making a speedy recovery

"Many people have asked whether the body can heal itself from [the] flu, and the answer is yes. This is because the body's own immune system is capable of fighting off viral illnesses like the flu on its own without any medical treatment," DeVries explains. By implementing some specific tools and methods, she shares that we can support our body in making a smooth and speedy recovery.

"First, overall effects depend upon a few things, such as whether a person has been vaccinated against the seasonal strain or if the person has a weakened immune system or underlying condition," DeVries explains. "But it is important to get plenty of rest, so your body has time to focus its resources on recovering from illness." In addition to rest, DeVries also highlights the importance of hydration and nutrition — specifically, foods that are rich in minerals and vitamins. 

However, she notes that in some cases, further treatment may be warranted, such as from a respiratory therapist. "If you find that even after taking these steps, you still have lingering symptoms of flu-like fatigue or chest congestion, then seeking out additional medical care could be beneficial in terms of accelerating recovery time," she states.

When to seek emergency medical care for long-term effects from the flu

When considering whether to seek medical care for long-term effects from the flu, DeVries first outlines the short-term symptoms of the virus. "The most common symptoms of the flu are fever, sore throat, headache, muscle aches and pains, runny nose or congestion, fatigue, and coughing," she states. 

"However, if not treated properly with rest, plenty of fluids, and necessary medication, it may lead to more serious conditions such as bronchitis or pneumonia," she cautions. "Other complications include acute asthma attacks triggered by exposure to an already weakened respiratory system or being exposed to irritants like smoke or allergens while dealing with a pre-existing condition like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) can cause exacerbations where medical attention would become necessary."

"Generally speaking, it is [a] best practice to seek medical attention whenever experiencing flu symptoms or if you think that your symptoms are not resolving within a reasonable amount of time (1–2 weeks)," DeVries advises. "Respiratory therapists can help patients manage their symptoms by providing assessments for any underlying conditions as well as administering treatments that address acute difficulties associated with having had the flu, such as chest physiotherapy for increased lung clearance or oxygen therapy in more severe cases," she states. 

In conclusion, DeVries reiterates that seeking medical care is key to helping protect against long-term complications from the flu. In doing so, a specialist can help tailor a healthcare treatment plan that's right for you.