This season's outbreak of influenza, or flu, is raging across the country, taking kids out of school and parents out of work at levels that dwarf last year's flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than half of the country's states have reported widespread infection levels, flu has hospitalized more than 2,200 people across the country, and 18 children have died as a result of infection. It is not too late, CDC officials say, for people to get--and be protected by--the flu vaccine.
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Why so many cases?
Zich theorizes that one reason there are so many flu cases is that the heart of the flu season coincided with the December holiday season, meaning many people were already sleep-deprived from parties and were more likely to get sick.
Those who went to gatherings of family or friends may have already begun to feel sick, and spread the virus to others. People are generally contagious the day before symptoms start, and for five days after becoming sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last flu season was light, but this year has brought with it some "ominous signs," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Tuesday.
Flu cases started going up early, toward the end of November and the beginning of December, he said.
"And it went up on a pretty steep trajectory," he said. "The last time we saw that happen that way was the flu season of 2003 and 2004, which turned out to be a bad flu season."
The type of flu that is going around is called H3N2, which is often linked to more serious disease compared to other flu varieties, Fauci said.
But there's good news: That type of flu matches up well to the vaccine that is being distributed and given out throughout the United States.
People may get more complications from this particular strain of H3N2, "which may make them ill for a longer period of time," Dr. Michael Jhung, medical epidemiologist in the influenza division at CDC, told CNN's Mary Snow.
"But symptoms typically last up to seven days for a normal infection, a noncomplicated infection with influenza," he said. "And we usually see that from year to year regardless of what strains are circulating."
The CDC says it will release updated information on Friday. Meanwhile, it offers these tips to prevent the spread of seasonal flu:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
- If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)
- While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
Image: Flu-stricken woman, via Shutterstock