Keep your hand sanitizer and tissues handy — according to the Centers for Disease Control, Virginia was one of 10 states with a moderate number of physician visits for flu and flu-like symptoms during the first few weeks in January. Flu cases have shown up in more than half the state's regions, so it's considered widespread by the CDC and state health officials.
The flu is a respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. It's contagious with symptoms that run from mild to severe, including fever, dry cough, fatigue, sore throat, headache, runny nose and body aches. Those most at risk are young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with pre-existing conditions.
"We are seeing a general increase in the the number of patients testing positive for the flu," said Dr. Phi Lam, medical director at the Patient First office in Denbigh.
"It seems to be spiking now, perhaps due to the holiday season and the cold weather," he said.
Flu season runs from December to March but can go into April and even May, according to the Virginia Department of Health. It's not unusual to see spikes in flu cases at this time a year, said Sarah Fenno, the state health department's influenza surveillance coordinator. The department also found a slight increase in flu cases in December, its data shows.
"There's a lot of people coming into emergency rooms and urgent care centers with the flu," Fenno said. For the same time last year, flu reports were not widespread, she added.
The flu is spread by inhaling respiratory droplets produced by coughing or sneezing, according to the CDC. You can also become infected by touching a contaminated object, such as a handshake from someone who used the hand to cover a sneeze, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, the agency's website states.
Those who find themselves with flu symptoms should seek care sooner rather than later, Lam said. Some medications can help shorten the flu's duration and manage symptoms but only if it's caught in the first 48 hours, the doctor said.
Local health officials agree that prevention is the better bet. It's not too late to get a flu shot, which will build up your immunity to the virus in about two weeks, Lam said. According to the CDC, this year's flu vaccines closely matches virus strains physicians have seen this season.
Flu shots are available at Patient First, as well as at local pharmacies. They're recommended for everyone ages six months and up, Lam said.
Canty can be reached by phone at 757-247-4832.
Tips to avoid the flu
Get a flu shot
Wash your hands often, especially after coughing, sneezing and wiping or blowing your nose.
Use paper tissues when wiping or blowing your nose.
Cough into a tissue or the inside of your elbow instead of into your bare hand.
Avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes as germs enter the body through these openings.
Stay home if you have flu symptoms until you are fever-free for 24 hours.