U.S. health officials report flu cases are now widespread, but have yet to reach their peak nationwide. It's still early winter.
The flu virus first hit in the West, Arizona and California in particular. The hardest hit now is the Northeast.
Flu is dangerous, and can even be deadly, for the very young, the very old, and anyone with a weak immune system.
In the nation's hospitals, where experience is often the best teacher, class is in session. The subject, reports CBS News Jim Axelrod, is flu.
"This is the most dramatic flu epidemic I've seen in my 25 years working in hospitals." says Dr. Jonathan Metsch of Jersey City Medical Center.
It's the "A" strain of something called the "Sydney flu," Sydney as in Australia, and it's putting more people down under than hospitals can handle. In Philadelphia, they've got more patients than beds. In Jersey City, admissions are up 50 percent. And at Brooklyn's Maimonides Hospital, it's even worse.
"We've set records the last several days," says Maimonides' Dr. Steven Davidson. "At nearly 290 patients a day, considerably more than the state Department of Health would let us design the emergency department for."
And it's not just the East Coast. Of the 19 hardest hit states in the country, three of the worst are Washington, Montana and Utah. "I'm not an epidemiologist," says Dr. Robert McNamara. "But if this isn't an epidemic, I don't know what is."
Doctors at the Centers for Disease Control say nearly 900 people died from flu or pneumonia in the week between Christmas and New Year's. But none of them are using the word epidemic. In fact, the way the government's researchers see it, this season is more typical than terrible.
"We do understand that certain communities may be particularly hard hit this year," Dr. Nancy Cox. "However on a national basis, we're seeing a fairly typical picture."
That's small consolation for the places where hospitals are overwhelmed, understaffed, and fully aware that it's still early in the flu season. It could well get worse before the worst get well.
But what exactly is flu? CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin helps sort out what it is and is not, and what you can still do to treat it, perhaps even prevent it:
- Flu Fact # 1: A terrible cold is not the flu, even if you're coughing, sweating and feeling utterly miserable -- like Sheila Moriarty. She doesn't have the flu -- probably just an upper respiratory infection. The flu -- short for influenza -- is a specific virus, and the only sure-fire way to know if you have it is by testing for it. A new rapid test called Zstatflu is helping doctors like Robert Mittman diagnose tricky cases like Sheila Moriarty's, who tsted negative despite showing all the classic signs of influenza.
- Flu Fact #2: You can't treat the flu with antibiotics. Why? The flu is a virus, and antibiotics are for bacterial infections. So when Carol Shaya's flu test comes back positive, for instance, her doctor knows with certainty that antibiotics will be a waste of time and money. And why are so many people getting the flu right now? Must be because of the weather, right? But that leads us to:
- Flu Fact #3: Cold weather, getting a chill or being outside without a coat and hat will not make you sick. The weather has a little to do with it, but only because people spread germs faster, because they're inside more. "Actually, no," says Dr. Mittman. "It has no difference in the temperature, or people in Arizona or Florida would never get the flu." But they do. The best way to avoid the flu is still the flu vacine, which brings us to:
- Flu Fact #4: The shot will not make you sick. You may get mild symptoms, but in the long run, it's a lot better than the full-blown virus. And finally, the bad news:
- Flu Fact #5: There are three strains of flu out there. Suffering through one won't make you immune to the others. And flu season lasts until the end of March.
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