The flu is hitting parts of the U.S. harder and earlier than usual, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is the earliest the nation has been hit hard by the flu since 2003 and 2004, when the flu season hit early and severe, especially in children. Last season, the flu was mild and didn't peak until mid-March.
While Illinois isn't one of the states to report an early, severe strain of the flu, the state is seeing flu activity. The state health department indicates that physicians in some areas of the state, are reporting an increase in people with influenza-like illnesses. There also have been recent institutional flu outbreaks and several laboratory-confirmed cases.
Doris Driscoll of Anderson Hospital said that the CDC warning hit home: Flu cases were rough in 2003-04 locally.
"As I recall, it hit really hard over the holidays," she said.
So far, Driscoll said the Maryville hospital has mostly seen cases of influenza B -- more cases so far this year than the entire season in previous years.
"The number of positive flu swabs was highest in the last two weeks," she said.
There have also been a few cases of influenza A, she said, but nothing compared to the cases of influenza B.
"I know the holidays are coming, but if you are not feeling well, please don't go out and spread it to everyone in the mall or at the office Christmas party," Driscoll said. "Stay home. Everyone will miss you, but will be grateful you spared them from getting ill as well."
The Infection Prevention Team at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville has seen "sporadic" flu activity in St. Clair and Clinton counties.
"St. Elizabeth's has seen increases in outpatients presenting with flu symptoms in both our UrgiCare centers and in the emergency room," said hospital spokeswoman Kelly Barbeau.
Employees at the hospital were required to receive flu shots before flu season began, Barbeau said, but those employees who declined the vaccination will wear masks at the hospital now that flu activity is being seen.
Dec. 2-8 is National Influenza Vaccination Week and doctors encourage anyone who hasn't received a flu shot to get one.
"Getting vaccinated is the single best way for you to protect not only yourself against flu, but your loved ones as well," said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck. "The flu season typically runs from October to May, with the peak around January. We recommend everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated."
About 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu every year, according to the CDC. On average, influenza in the U.S. results in approximately 200,000 hospitalizations and more than 25,000 deaths annually. More than 60 percent of Americans have not received a flu shot, according to statistics from the CDC.
Most of the flu viruses identified this season have been the H3N2 viruses, which are typically associated with more severe seasons, according to the CDC. The vaccine distributed nationwide this season is well-matched to the prevalent strain of the virus so those who have received their flu shot should be protected.
"How well the vaccine works depends in part, on the match between vaccine viruses and circulating viruses," stated Dr. Melinda Wharton, acting director at the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "While it's early in the season, it's encouraging to see a well-matched vaccine so far. That bodes well for how well this season's vaccine will protect against illness, hospitalizations, and deaths."
Flu symptoms may include a fever of 100 degrees or higher, headache, body aches, exhaustion, chills, and weakness.
Amy Yeager, a health educator with the Madison County Health Department, said the basic message is the same for the flu as for the H1N1 virus: clean, cover and contain.
"Clean your hands and wash them often, especially when you've been out in public places in flu season," Yeager said. "Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Contain it by staying home when you're sick, and keep your kids home when they're sick."
Flu vaccinations are still available at Madison County Health Department, many area pharmacies and private physicians' offices. In St. Clair County, vaccinations are available at private physicians' offices and pharmacies.