Flu season is well underway, but experts warn the worst is yet to come

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Though experts say flu season starts in the fall, the data shows dramatic increases of flu-related deaths and hospitalizations in the winter months.

According to WakeMed, the number of positive flu tests spiked 132 percent from the first half of December (37 positive tests) to the second half (86), with both of those figures dwarfing the 12 reported cases in November. The data shows that between December 30th and January 3rd - a period of five days - there were 42 positive tests.

"It is important to remember that the flu is contagious a full day before symptoms occur," Jessica Dixon, Infection Prevention Specialist at WakeMed, tells ABC11. "While most people bounce back from the flu after a little while, it can be extremely serious for young children and those with weakened immune systems."

North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) dates this year's flu season from September 30, 2018 to May 18, 2019, and so far reports 10 flu-related deaths, compared to 15 at this same time last year. The influenza virus, however, would go on to kill 376 people between January and May of last year, with the vast majority of them occurring in February (190). Additionally, the data shows most victims were over the age of 50 (360 patients), but they also included infants, children, teenagers and young adults.

Dr. Zack Moore, North Carolina's State Epidemiologist, sent a memo to all health providers warning that seniors and young children are most at risk if they contract the flu.

"Treatment is most effective when started within 48 hours of illness onset," Moore writes." Annual vaccination against influenza is the best way to prevent infection and is recommended for everyone 6 months of age who does not have a medical contraindication to vaccination. It's especially important for people who are at high risk of developing serious complications like pneumonia if they get sick with the flu, and people who live with or care for others who are high risk of developing serious complications."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following symptoms associated with the flu:

  • A 100-degree Fahrenheit or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever)
  • A cough and/or sore throat
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children)

According to Dr. Moore's memo, the following symptoms require emergency medical attention:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • In babies, bluish gray skin color, lack of responsiveness, or extreme irritation

According to the CDC, at this time, hospitalization rates in children younger than 5 years old (14.5 per 100,000) are the highest among all age groups.

Most flu activity is still being driven by H1N1 infections, however in the southeastern part of the country, H3N2 viruses have been most commonly reported this season, the CDC added.

Nationally Influenza Like Illness (ILI) went from 3.3% for the week ending December 22 to 4.1% for the week ending December 29. (Some of the increase in ILI may be driven by changes in care-seeking behavior that can occur over a holiday.)

Over the past 5 seasons, the peak of ILI has ranged from 3.6% (2015-2016) to 7.5% (2017-2018).

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine() for everyone 6 months of age and older as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease.
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