Rare side effect of flu puts young men at risk
This year’s flu season has been one of the worst in recent memory causing thousands of people to be hospitalized. The virus can be particularly dangerous for young men who can experience nerve damage caused by the body’s response to the flu.
The immune system creates antibodies to fight the flu virus, but in rare cases these antibodies can also attack myelin, the protective sheath around the nerves. This condition is commonly known as Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré syndrome usually begins with burning, numbness and tingling sensations in the legs, which can lead to muscle weakness, unsteadiness and falls. If left untreated, Guillain-Barré syndrome can lead to complete paralysis. One study estimated that 17 out of every 1 million flu patients developed Guillain-Barré following the flu.
“Studies have shown that young men recovering from the flu have a slightly higher risk of developing Guillain-Barré syndrome,” said Sheetal Shroff, M.D., a Houston Methodist neurologist who specializes in neuromuscular disorders. “What we don’t know is the exact reason why young men are more likely to develop the syndrome than young women or even older men.”
Shroff said many patients brush off the sensations in their legs as leftover symptoms of the flu that will eventually clear up. However, the National Institutes of Health reports that 90 percent of Guillain-Barré patients can reach their weakest muscle strength during the third week of having the syndrome.
“If anyone, but especially young men, recovering from the flu experiences even mild burning or tingling sensations in their legs, they should consult their physician as soon as possible,” said Shroff. “When Guillain-Barré patients are diagnosed early on and treated appropriately, their physical strength will improve and their damaged nerves can be recovered.”
Shroff adds that getting the flu shot can help lower one’s risk of catching the flu virus, and therefore lower the risk of further complications, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.