Flu activity reaches high levels in Georgia

The flu season in Georgia is ramping up, with the number of cases already at a level considered high.

Friday, the state Department of Public Health said 4.59% of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Nov. 16, up from 4.03% the week before.

Flu activity has been steadily rising over the past six weeks. There have been 66 flu-related hospitalizations in metro Atlanta, but no flu-related deaths reported in the state.

A rough flu season in Australia had medical experts on high alert for potentially the same in the U.S. Australia, which saw an earlier-than-usual peak of flu cases, was hit hard with a particularly virulent flu strain, H3N2, which generally causes more severe illness, especially in seniors.

Public health experts stress that the Australian flu season doesn’t always predict the U.S. one, and it’s too early to tell just how bad this season will be here. Even within the U.S., there can be regional differences.

Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is starting to see an increase in flu illnesses, mostly influenza B infections. The number of Influenza B infections typically rises later in the season, said Dr. Andi Shane, medical director of hospital epidemiology.

It was at this time last year that flu activity reached a high level in Georgia. Puerto Rico and six other states — including Alabama, South Carolina and Nevada — also are at that level, according to the latest surveillance report from the Centers Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu season usually peaks between December and February. But the season can also extend into May — as it did this past season.

It takes about two weeks after a flu shot for antibodies to develop in the body, according to the CDC. Experts say it’s not too late to get a flu shot.

The flu causes fever, headache, muscle pain and can lead to complications such as pneumonia, which can be serious and even deadly.

Each year, 5% to 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu. Tens of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands die from a flu-related illness.

Flu vaccine effectiveness can vary, but it has generally ranged between 40% and 60% over the past several years. Effectiveness was only 19% during the 2014-15 year.

Though many companies and schools offer free flu shots, polls show more than a third of Americans decline the vaccination.

MORE: When you can go back to work or school if you have the flu?

Experts say the vaccine can offer protection even if you come down with the illness. It lessens the severity of the flu and reduces the chance of experiencing complications. Getting a vaccine also can shorten the length of the illness if you do get sick.

Seniors, young children and people with chronic health conditions are at most risk for serious flu-related complications, but the flu also kills healthy people every year.

  • Get the flu shot. Hospitals and clinics are seeing higher rates of flu infection, but it's still not too late to get a flu vaccine. Even if a flu vaccine does not completely protect you or your family from having the flu, people who get the shots tend to experience fewer days of symptoms and less severe symptoms.
  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands, and your children's hands, frequently, especially after coughing or sneezing. You can also use an alcohol-based sanitizer to keep hands clean.
  • Cover your cough and sneezes with the inside of your elbow or a tissue. Doing so reduces the chances that droplets will fly out and land on people nearby.
  • Stay home when sick. To reduce the spread of flu infections in the community, stay home from work, school or social events when ill. The CDC recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone (except to get medical care or other necessities). The fever should be gone for at least 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol.
  • Take care of yourself. To help your immune system be in good enough shape to fight off the flu and other germs, eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise.

Source: Dr. Andi Shane, medical director of hospital epidemiology at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.