The 2012-2013 flu season has started early, with five states reporting high levels of flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
The proportion of people visiting their doctor for flu-like symptoms has climbed from 2.8 percent to 5.6 percent in the last four weeks. Last year's mid flu season peak was 2.2 percent. The five states reporting high levels of flu activity are Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Pennsylvania is also reporting high levels of flu activity, with over 7,000 cases and four deaths from Oct. 2 to Dec. 29. Higher levels are expected to spread to other parts of the country.
The predominant strain of flu this year is an influenza A (H3N2) virus, which has accounted for 76 percent of the reported viruses. According to the CDC, H3 predominant years tend to be the worst years for the flu.
Flu season generally starts to pick up in December, peak sometime in January or February and die down by late March or early April. One risk of an early flu season is that it arrives before people have had a chance to get vaccinated.
The CDC recommends that everyone six months or older get a flu shot every year. People with a high risk of developing serious complications from the flu include pregnant women, people 65 years or older and people with health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and lung disease.
Influenza, more commonly known as simply "the flu", is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. It spreads via infected people coughing, sneezing or talking, though people can also get infected by touching something with the flu virus on it before touching their mouth, eyes or nose.
Symptoms of the flu include muscle or body aches, headache, cough, sore throat, fatigue, fever or chills, and vomiting and diarrhea (the latter two are more common in kids). The flu can also worsen chronic medical conditions or cause death.
There are some risks associated with the flu shot, such as severe allergic reactions or Guillan-Barre Syndrome, but both cases are extremely rare. Other side effects include low fever, aches and soreness at the spot shot was received.
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Source: Reuters, "U.S doctors feel pinch of early flu season, push for vaccinations," Jan. 7, 2013.