Officials say the flu season is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade.
The flu is spreading faster than anticipated and has already become widespread in 41 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So far this season, 18 children and teens have died from the flu, and the CDC says the worst is yet to come.
In one of the earliest and worst flu seasons in years, experts say that if patterns hold, 5 to 20 percent of the country will contract the flu this year, according to NBC News.
The outbreak looks to be on track to be the worst since the 2003-2004 flu season, according to officials. That year, the H3N2 virus, the same one that’s hitting the U.S. now, was responsible for the deaths of 153 children.
"Influenza causes death often through its complications, Lyn Finelli of the CDC told CBS News. "Especially in the elderly, influenza causes death through pneumonia and through exacerbation of chronic underlying conditions." Finelli said the flu season hit about five weeks earlier this year than is typical.
The CDC typically recommends that everyone above the age of six get a flu shot, especially those with chronic ailments, pregnant women or those over 65. More than 2,200 people have been hospitalized so far this year, ABC News reported. Each year more than 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu.
In Ohio, 863 people have been hospitalized with flu symptoms this season, up from 65 at this time last year. “Our normal volume here would be anywhere from about 40 patients… we’re seeing 75 to 80 patients a day now,” an Ohio doctor told ABC News.
And the flu is hitting hard around the world. Belgium could hit epidemic levels of flu infection, according to reports, after a spike in cases between Dec. 24 and Dec. 30. Influenza activity was on the rise in Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United Kingdom, UPI reported.
Researchers believe the flu spreads more easily in the winter when the air is dryer because the virus can linger longer in the dry air.
How can you protect yourself? In addition to getting a flu shot, common sense prevails. Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay home from work or school if you’re sick.
Read more at MSN Healthy Living.