Influenza season is off to its earliest start in nearly 10 years, government health officials announced Monday, and it could be an especially bad one for some Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a Dec. 3 press conference that suspected flu cases have jumped in five southern states, and the primary strain circulating is one that tends to make people sicker, especially the elderly. The last time a typical flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-2004, according to the CDC.
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The good news is the nation seems to be fairly well prepared, Frieden said. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and the vaccine is well-matched to the strains of flu seen so far, CDC officials said.
Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick in flu cases like this usually doesn't occur until after Christmas.
The CDC tracks influenza rates in its weekly FluView surveillance report.
It's not clear why the flu is showing up so early, but flu-related hospitalizations are rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two flu-related deaths in children.
The 2003-2004 influenza season happened to be a year when the dominant flu type was the same one seen most widely this year. And in that year, there were a higher-than-usual number of flu-related deaths in both the elderly and children.
But In 2003-04, the flu vaccine was a poor match to the flu strain. Also, there's more vaccine now, and flu vaccination rates have risen for the general public and for key groups like pregnant women and health care workers.
In all, an estimated 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far, the CDC said. Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone who is 6 months of age or older.
Symptoms of flu include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, headaches, fatigue and vomiting and diarrhea, which tends to be more common in children than adults. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming sick, according to the CDC. Some people, especially young children and those with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.
Flu is spread through droplets expelled when people cough, sneeze or talk. The droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or people might touch a contaminated surface or object before touching their own mouth or nose.
Besides vaccination, which the CDC is the best way to prevent the flu, the agency recommends washing hands often with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub if soap is unavailable.
December 2nd through 8th marks National Hand Washing Awareness week. The CDC says hand hygiene is one of the most important steps to avoid getting sick and reduce the spread of germs to others. Wash hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds -- the CDC recommends humming the tune of the "Happy Birthday" song twice -- and make sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between the fingers and under your nails.
The CDC has more questions and answers on the seasonal flu.