LEWISTOWN - There has been a dramatic and widespread increase in flu activity across the state since November, with more than half the state's regions experiencing outbreaks of influenza or increases in influenza-like illness, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported.
Within the past week, Dec. 2 to Dec. 8, 448 cases of seasonal flu were reported as compared to the 12 cases that were reported this time last year. This most recent case count is also more than double the amount reported during the previous week, Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, according to the Department of Health.
In total, there have been 834 confirmed flu cases reported from more than 50 of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania since Oct. 2, according to the Department of Health website.
Dr. Raselette Hunt, family medicine physician at Geisinger-Lewistown, said the rise in flu activity is most likely caused by the increase in traveling across states during the holiday season. When people are exposed to flu symptoms outside of the state, they bring the virus back home with them and expose others to it, she said.
"The flu is transmitted through respiratory droplets that travel in the air when people cough, sneeze or talk," Hunt said. "In other cases, a person might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their mouth, eyes or nose."
Symptoms of influenza are similar to the common cold but usually more intense, Hunt said. They can consist of chills, fever, headache, cough, muscle aches and exhaustion, lasting up to 10 days. People with the flu are also contagious from the day before symptoms develop to five or seven days after becoming sick, she added.
"There's no way for a person to determine if they have the flu rather than a cold without doctor testing," Hunt said. "A diagnoses of influenza is based on patient history, physical examination and other reports in the community. Often, what seems like the flu is actually a respiratory or sinus infection caused by a rhinovirus."
According to the Center for Disease Control, the best way to prevent the flu is to get the seasonal flu vaccine each year which protects against the three influenza viruses that research suggests are most common. However, the flu vaccine will not protect against flu-like illnesses caused by non-influenza viruses.
Though the CDC and Department of Health recommend that everyone get vaccinated, it's especially important that certain groups get vaccinated because of high risk for flu-related complications or they live with or care for someone at high risk for complications.
These groups include children younger than five, adults 65 years of age or older, pregnant women, people with medical conditions and those who work at nursing homes, hospitals or other chronic care facilities.
However, it's important to note that the vaccine is not right for everyone, Hunt said. There are some people who react badly to the vaccine resulting in a neurological condition that causes weakness throughout the body and difficulty breathing, she said.
The CDC also recommends that the following groups should not get the vaccine: children younger than six months, people with an allergy to chicken eggs, people who've had a reaction to the vaccination in the past, people who have an illness with a fever and people with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
For those who cannot receive the vaccine for any reason, the best preventative options involve effective hand-washing techniques, disinfecting commonly-used surfaces or objects and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, Hunt said.
The Department of Health also recommends carrying hand sanitizer, maintaining a healthy diet, keeping a regular sleep schedule and dressing appropriately for the weather.
However, if you should happen to get the flu or a severe cold, Hunt said, there are a number of precautions that should be used to care for yourself and keep others healthy. The most important step is to stay home from work or school, when possible, if you're sick, she said.
"It's important to check your temperature regularly, anything above 100 degrees means you need immediate medical attention," Hunt said. "Also, make sure to drink at least eight ounces of water a day to help flush the virus out of your system. Humidifiers are another good idea because they increase the moisture in the air, making it easier to breathe."
Those younger than 18 years of age should avoid using aspirin or any over-the-counter drug that lists aspirin as an ingredient as it causes severe liver damage, Hunt said. Using Tylenol products is the safest over-the-counter option, she said.
"We certainly have seen an increase in visits from patients with cough, chills, fever and headache recently," Hunt said. "However, the symptoms of the flu are much more common than the actual flu. Either way, it's important to take preventative measures and take care of yourself."