The flu is arriving early this year, like an unwanted guest popping in for the holiday. And it figures to make you just about as miserable.
Some physicians in Georgia are reporting a big jump in sick patients.
“We’re significantly busier than last November and December,” said Dr. Jeff Hopkins of Northside Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which has offices in Sandy Springs and Woodstock. Hopkins estimates his patient load has risen between 15 percent and 20 percent over the same time a year ago.
“We’re most concerned with the youngest babies and those with special health needs like diabetes, severe asthma and cerebral palsy,” he said.
He recommends people get vaccinated. “We’re big proponents of prevention, especially in households with babies under six months, who can’t get the vaccine.”
While Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas are seeing the most activity, the level of influenza activity in Georgia is picking up, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last year’s flu season got off to a late start and was relatively mild. Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe, said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman. “Each flu season is unique in and of itself. There’s really no explanation as to why the flu may start early one year and late the next.”
Skinner said this is the earliest he seen such levels of influenza activity at this point in the year in about a decade. He said 2009 was an exception because there was a pandemic of H1N1 — called swine flu by some.
The flu season typically peaks in January.
Skinner said it’s difficult to project whether this will be a severe season. “We have to wait and see as we go along,” he said.
The people at most risk for having serious complications from the flu include the elderly, young children and people with underlying health conditions.
The best defense is the vaccine, according to many medical professionals.
“We are not hearing of any problems with people not being able to get vaccine” said CDC’s Skinner. “There should be enough out there for everyone who wants to get one. So far, we have a good match between what is circulating and what is in the vaccine.”
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta listed flu activity in Georgia as moderate, while neighboring states Tennessee and Alabama were showing high activity for the week ending Nov. 24.
The number of flu hospitalizations in eight metro Atlanta counties from October through November spiked from 0 to 25. The old and young are typically more susceptible. The number of people with flu symptoms visiting emergency rooms that report to the Georgia Department of Public Health nearly quadrupled during the same period.*
The flu typically peaks in late January and early February. The worst recent flu season was 2008.
Vaccinations, either a shot or a nasal spray, can lessen susceptibility. It is recommended especially for those 50 and older, those who live or work in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, people with chronic health conditions, women who will become pregnant during the influenza season, and children 6 months to 18 years of age.
The disease and vaccines change every year, so last year’s shot may not protect you.
People should avoid vaccinations if they have allergies to chicken eggs or have had reactions to the vaccinations before. Children younger than six months should not get one.
Vaccines can be had in doctors offices, health departments or many local drug stores.
Most flu infections are spread by picking up germs on hands. The simple act of washing hands or using a decontaminating rub may prevent illness.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing to prevent the spread of the flu.
Antibiotics work for bacterial infections but do not work for viral infections such as the flu.
Not all cases of flu require a doctor’s visit, but a patient should see one if: there is on-going or worsening fatigue or irritability that cannot be consoled, confusion or headache that will not go away after taking pain relievers such as Motrin, severe muscle pain or red urine, labored breathing, neck stiffness or dehydration or persistent vomiting.
*Source, flu statistics, Georgia Department of Public Health
By Shelia Poole
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution