Terrifying flu season: What to look out for as growing number of young people lose lives after getting sick

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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- This flu season is already the worst in over a decade, according to the CDC and now a terrifying trend is emerging across the country.

Young, healthy people, who typically are able to fight off the virus, have been dying within days of catching it.

A 40-year-old mother and marathon runner from California; a 21-year-old fitness fanatic from Pittsburgh; and one of FOX 8’s own, Kathleen Cochrane DePiero, here in Cleveland have all passed away from influenza escalating into septic shock.

“It happened so fast and that’s what’s so puzzling to everybody,” said Dean DePiero, Kathleen’s husband.

Although grieving, the former Parma mayor and Aurora law director sat down with FOX 8’s Suzanne Stratford and shared what happened in an effort to save lives.

He says Kathleen developed a slight cough and wasn’t feeling well.

She figured it was the flu and that it would pass with over-the-counter medications, fluids and rest.

However, less than 36 hours later on December 30, she was rushed to the hospital and passed away at just 38 years old.

“The doctors, nurses and EMTs worked so hard to try and save her and I thank them for that, but it just happened so quickly,” said Dean, as his eyes welled with tears.

Doctors are now warning people to seek medical attention immediately at the very first sign of the flu, because the current strain is so aggressive.

“This year in particular and this strain in particular is a virulent strain, all strains are, but this one even more so than normal,” said Dr. Amy Edwards, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist.

Sepsis was already on the rise, due in part to some doctors over-prescribing antibiotics, leading to stronger infectious bacteria and viruses, says Dr. Edwards.

That coupled with a wicked flu strain has created the perfect storm.

“Sepsis is when there is just so much organism in your body, that it’s starting to affect your organs,” said Dr. Edwards. “And then septic shock, your body is so overwhelmed by the infection that it starts to shut down.”

Early recognition and treatment is critical.

She says people need to see a doctor at the very first signs of flu, and then be closely monitored at home for any changes, which can happen rapidly.

Signs the flu is worsening and might be becoming sepsis include an inability to intake fluids, an inability to urinate, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, a fever that is unresponsive to anti-inflammatory medicines and extreme lethargy.

“They’re just not behaving like they should,” said Dr. Edwards. “Everybody that is sick doesn’t have energy, but these people are typically laid out.”

Also, people with asthma or COPD are at higher risk.

Prevention is key.

Dr. Edwards recommends people wash their hands frequently, get plenty of rest and eat a healthy diet.

She also advises everyone to get the flu shot.

Although the flu shot has only been 30% effective this season in terms of preventing the flu, she says it can reduce serious complications like pneumonia that can lead to sepsis.

Dean hopes everyone will heed that advice so that no other family loses their loved one, like he lost Kathleen. "She was the best mom any kids or a husband could have and just a good person."

More from the CDC, here.

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