By Wendy Sarubbi | January 27, 2014 4:30 pm

Another flu-related death in Central Florida serves to illustrate the severity of the virus this season, as physicians at UCF Health, the physician practice of the UCF College of Medicine, call for those who haven’t received the vaccination yet to get one immediately. This is especially important for individuals—even young people—with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart conditions.

With multiple flu-related deaths in Central Florida, including pregnant women and a child, health officials report that while the number of cases are not extraordinary high, the severity of illnesses have increased. Some believe this is a result of younger people not having been exposed to H1N1 during past outbreaks.

UCF Health physicians say it’s not too late to get a flu shot because the season extends well into February.

“Even though it takes 7-10 days for the vaccination to protect you, we may still have a long flu season ahead,” said Dr. Bernard Gros, a board-certified cardiologist at UCF Health who also teaches at the medical school. “And if you do get sick, don’t simply assume you’re well just because you no longer have a fever. You owe it to others around you to stay at home until your physician has cleared you to return to work or school.”

In addition to protecting the individual, a flu shot helps protect your family, friends and coworkers, UCF Health physicians say. The more people are inoculated, the healthier your “herd,” the people with whom you have direct contact daily. A healthy herd means fewer people will come down with the flu virus.

Those considered at highest risk for developing the flu include children younger than 5, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease and weakened immune systems.

“When a patient with chronic heart or lung disease, for example, contracts the flu, it often triggers additional complications not often seen in healthy individuals,” said Dr. Gros. “Heart patients who are otherwise stable can experience additional stress from the flu virus. It makes their hearts work harder and that can cause potentially dangerous ripple effects.”

The need for flu vaccinations is vital for those with diabetes. In fact, a recent study conducted in Canada found that working-age adults with diabetes appeared to have an increased risk of hospitalization from the flu than those without the disease. This is partially attributed to their additional health problems, and the flu does nothing but further complicate their wellbeing.

This year’s flu also has hit young people hard, and those with chronic conditions or who live in close quarters like dorm rooms are especially at risk, said Dr. Lisa Barkley, a UCF Health physician who is board certified in family, adolescent and sports medicine.

“We tend to think of people at higher risk for catching the flu as being older. However, 20 percent of young people have chronic conditions like asthma and are strongly advised to get vaccinated,” she said. “Add on top of that, many of these young people with chronic conditions are in classrooms and living in dorms with others who are sick,” she said.

The physicians said simple lifestyle changes can help prevent the spread of the flu. Frequent and proper hand washing is a primary defense. “It’s important to use soap—it doesn’t even have to be the antibacterial type—and be sure to lather for several seconds,” Barkley said. “Some even advise doing it as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday or say the ABCs in your head. Then rinse with warm water. I also recommend keeping hand sanitizers around to use when soap and water are not available. And definitely wash your hands before eating.”

She also warns her patients against allowing others to handle their cell phones. And if they do, be careful to wipe them down with a sanitizer. Do the same for shared computer keyboards.

If you think you’re over the flu virus simply because you don’t have a fever, think again, Dr. Barkley warned. Many medications taken to relieve the aches and pains of viral infections also mask symptoms like the fever. And when there’s a fever, there’s a chance of making those around you sick. So when in doubt about whether you’re ready to go back to work or school, consult your physician.

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