The flu virus is back with a vengeance. In the last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials say that the number of flu cases reported took a huge jump — and the virus is now widespread in 41 states. A Google map of internet searches that the company says is a good indicator of flu activity displays the U.S. as deep red for "intense."
"I think we're still accelerating," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told NBC News.
Lyn Finelli, who heads the surveillance and response team that monitors influenza for the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said this year's flu season was about five weeks ahead of the average.
“We haven’t seen such an early season since 2003 to 2004,” Finelli told NBC News.
Officials are pushing for people to get vaccinated, citing a particularly nasty strain of the flu that wreaked havoc that winter, when more than 48,000 died (and led to the establishment in 2005 of National Influenza Vaccination Week). The current batch of vaccines matches well with that strain, which makes it all the more important to get it, officials say.
Eighteen children have died from flu complications this season, and 2,257 people have been hospitalized as of the last week of December, according to the CDC.
But while the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself — and is particularly recommended for children over 6 months, pregnant women, people over 65 and those with chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes — it is not a guaranteed defense.
Whether or not you get the shot (an estimated 63 percent of Americans have not), there are many everyday, elementary things you can do to lessen the odds of falling victim.
Here are a few of them, via the CDC:
• Wash your hands often. Use soap and water. But if they are not available, hand sanitizer will suffice.
• Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth too much. That’s how germs spread.
• Stay away from sick people.
If you do get sick, the best you can do is stay at home, away from healthy people. The CDC also recommends asking your doctor if it makes sense to take an antiviral drug. These drugs can ease symptoms and help them fade faster.