A 15-Year-Old Cheerleader Died From Septic Shock After Having the Flu—Here's How That Can Happen

The high school student only had minor flu symptoms.

A North Carolina community is in mourning after a teenage girl died from severe complications of the flu, just before the new year.

Lacie Rian Fisher, 15, had been feeling achy and wasn’t hungry for a few days before she decided to spend the weekend in bed, her dad Keith Fisher told the Citizen Times. Lacie, a cheerleader, had recently been exposed to the flu and Keith thought she would get better with rest. But when Lacie still wasn’t better by Monday, December 30, Keith drove her less than a mile to her pediatrician. When she got out of his truck, her health quickly deteriorated.

“She just kind of screamed out a couple of times,” Keith said. Lacie collapsed and “just went limp in my arms.” By 4:45 that afternoon, Lacie was dead. Lacie’s death certificate listed her immediate cause of death as septic shock, with influenza B as an underlying cause.

What exactly is septic shock—and how can it be caused by the flu?

Septic shock is a severe form of sepsis, a life-threatening medical emergency that is the body’s extreme response to an infection, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sepsis happens when an infection you already have, like the flu, triggers a chain reaction through your body. If it’s not treated in time, it can quickly cause tissue damage, organ failure, and even death.

When someone has septic shock, “their blood pressure is inadequate to support life,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. It’s “possible” to recover from septic shock, but it’s “very severe,” Dr. Adalja says.

While most people recover from the flu within a few days, especially if they’re otherwise healthy, Dr. Adalja says, complications can happen. One of the more common complications of the flu is pneumonia, but people can also develop complications like inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, multi-organ failure, and sepsis, the CDC says.

People can develop sepsis and septic shock as a direct result of the flu or they can develop a secondary infection (like a bacterial infection) from being sick with the flu, which can increase the odds of sepsis and septic shock, Dr. Adalja says. “When we see people die from influenza, many have sepsis and septic shock. It is a common pathway for death from the flu,” Dr. Adalja says.

The other notable part of this story: Lacie's underlying cause of death was recorded as being influenza B, the predominate strain of the flu virus currently circulating this year. According to the CDC, this is the first time the US has seen influenza B account for the majority of flu cases since the 1992–1993 flu season. In fact, 21 of the 32 pediatric deaths during the current season being due to influenza B, per the CDC.

While the symptoms of influenza B are typically extremely similar to influenza A, influenza B infections can be more severe in children, and can lead to complications that require hospitalization or death. "We know that flu deaths in general are clustered among the very young and very old, but anyone can die from the flu," Dr. Adalja says.

A celebration of life for Lacie was held at her high school earlier this month, according to her obituary.

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