Flu season hits early, influenza affecting South Florida

An early outbreak of the seasonal flu sickening much of America is starting to hit more South Floridians with its hacking, feverish symptoms.

Since mid-December, Broward County emergency rooms have been seeing about twice the volume of patients coming in with flu-like symptoms than they typically see this time of year, said Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, chief of emergency medicine at Broward Health.

"And we're ready for it to increase a little more" in the coming weeks, he said.

FLU TRENDS AROUND THE WORLD, CLICK HERE: http://www.google.org/flutrends/

Some Palm Beach County hospitals are reporting the same activity, though state health officials listed Palm Beach County as exhibiting "mild" levels of activity in their latest report, from the last week in December.

Broward was one of 20 Florida counties whose level was listed as "moderate," one step higher in prevalence than mild — and one step below "widespread."

The good news: This strain, which El Sanadi identified as H3N2, is not as severe as earlier viruses, and it doesn't last as long.

CDC FLU ACTIVITY CLICK HERE: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/fluactivitysurv.htm

"It's more concentrated, it's earlier and it's more pervasive, but people are getting less sick for a shorter period of time," he said.

The flu season doesn't typically arrive until mid-January. But El Sanadi said area ERs are seeing about 5 to 7 percent of their overall patient load exhibiting flu-like symptoms — more than twice the 1 to 3 percent who usually get sick this time of year.

We're hardly alone. The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that during the last week of December, Florida was among 42 states experiencing "widespread" influenza activity, weeks ahead of schedule.

But El Sanadi cautions patients not to panic or rush out to request the antiviral medication, Tamiflu. All medications have side effects, he said, and Tamiflu should only be taken if a patient is sick enough to warrant it.

"Every medication has a little bit of poison in it," he said, adding that health professionals are more aggressively treating vulnerable patients — the very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems or pulmonary illnesses like asthma or COPD — with Tamiflu.

Everyone else, he said, should first try to self-treat their symptoms. If you feel like you have the flu — you have a cough, a fever, body aches and a feeling of lethargy — drink lots of fluids, take over-the-counter medicine, wash your hands regularly and do all you can not to contaminate others. If you don't feel better within 24 to 48 hours, or if you feel worse, El Sanadi said, see your doctor and let him or her decide how best to treat your illness.

One more piece of advice: It's not too late to get vaccinated.

"If you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, go get it because it will provide you with some immunization, even though we're hitting the crescendo of the illness," El Sanadi said.