For some in the Lebanon Valley, February isn't just about snowstorms, groundhogs and heart-shaped boxes of candy. It can also mean missing work, staying in bed and eating mass quantities of chicken soup.
The number of flu cases generally peaks this month, and doctors' offices are filling up with patients - mostly young adults - who have flulike symptoms that come on suddenly: high fever, body aches, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, fatigue, headaches, diarrhea and vomiting.
Nearly 7,500 cases and 36 deaths have been reported across the state as of Friday.
"These deaths may be an underestimate of all flu-related deaths because not all deaths are reported to the state, and there may be a delay in reporting some deaths," said Holli Senior, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Health.
Locally, there have been 113 reported flu cases in Lebanon County, but those only represent patients who were tested and account for merely a fraction of actual cases. Only two hospitalizations have been reported, and no outbreaks have been reported in any long-term care facilities. No flu deaths have been reported.
The number of cases is on par with neighboring counties Berks and Schuylkill, with 116 and 108, respectively, but Lebanon's numbers rank higher than the 71 cases reported in Dauphin and lower than the 205 in Lancaster County.
During the last week, there has been an increase in the 2009 A/H1N1 strain, which represents a change in the circulating viruses because the seasonal A/H3N2 was predominant early on in the season.
"This is the strain (A/H3N2) that in general produces the most severe disease and tends to hit relatively hard in elderly populations," Senior explained. "The dominating strain this year overall has been influenza A/H3Ns."
About 26 percent of people affected by the flu in the state this year are between the ages of 25 and 49, while infants and toddlers account for 14 percent of total cases, officials reported.
That is the case here, too, said Dr. Stephen Roda, medical director of the Good Samaritan Hospital's Emergency Department. But when it does hit the elderly population, the symptoms are more severe.
"In the last two weeks, there's been a little bump with people coming in with influenza, maybe half a dozen, but none to my knowledge required hospitalizations," Roda said. "There's been a spike in cases on the East Coast, but that hasn't taken hold here. Part of it might be the heightened awareness as a result of what we went through last year."
Last year's H1N1 virus triggered the first flu pandemic in decades because it was unexpected, he explained. It is no longer the dominant strain because most people have now been either vaccinated or exposed to the virus.
"This year's flu shots are more effective than last year's," he said.
Dr. Daniel Schlegel of the Hershey Medical Center's Department of Family and Community Medicine said he worked in the after-hours clinic Monday night and estimated three out of every four patients had flulike symptoms, adding that the number of flu cases will likely continue to increase in the next three to four weeks before it starts dropping off by May.
So what should people do to avoid getting sick?
Getting a flu shot, avoiding other sick people, washing hands regularly, covering your nose and mouth with hands or tissues when coughing or sneezing, getting adequate rest and eating properly are good preventative measures, according to the Department of Health.
Schlegel added that sick patients opted not to get vaccinated because they think the flu shot will actually cause the flu because they may get a sore throat and runny nose receiving it.
"That is the number one reason I hear people not getting the flu vaccine," he said.
Schlegel said there is no evidence of that, as a study done shows that people injected with just salt water will get a similar firstname.lastname@example.org
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