Hitting the U.S. unusually early and hard this year, the flu season has officially arrived.

Hitting the U.S. unusually early and hard this year, the flu season has officially arrived.

Minnesota confirmed 23 flu-related deaths Jan. 10, raising the season total to 27. Health care partners in some areas of the state, such as South Central, report seeing very high rates of influenza-like illness and are working together with their local public health partners to address issues and concerns.

More than 1,100 people have been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms statewide this season said the Minnesota Department of Health in a weekly update.

Several hospitals, including Sleepy Eye Medical Center (SEMC), New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) and Mayo Clinic Health Systems have restricted visitors in an attempt to protect patients and staff.

The past several influenza seasons have been mild so people are not accustomed to seeing higher levels of seasonal influenza activity. The amount and severity of influenza varies from season to season, according to SEMC.

Currently, the area is on track to have a greater than usual level of influenza activity this season. With the past mild seasons, it is easy to forget that influenza can have significant consequences in the form of increased numbers of serious or even life-threatening illnesses due to complications.

Influenza disease can be a gateway for secondary infections; primary influenza pneumonia, but more common is a secondary bacterial infection causing pneumonia or other complications. That is occurring in a number of hospitalized cases, and while such illnesses are always concerning, health care professionals are not surprised by them.

One reason why there is more influenza this year may be because one of the predominant circulating strains is the H3N2 strain of the virus. In years in which H3N2 is the predominant strain, health care providers typically see more severe cases of illness, particularly in the very young and the elderly, and more cases overall.

Fortunately, the three strains included in the trivalent vaccine appear to be a good match for the predominant circulating strains, although there have been cases of influenza B in Minnesota caused by a strain that is not covered in the vaccine. It is not too late to get vaccinated and there is vaccine available at Sleepy Eye Medical Center. Because people who are at high risk for influenza complications may not have the best immune response to the vaccine, it is important that those around them are vaccinated.

While the vaccine doesn’t offer perfect protection, it is still the best tool for preventing influenza and its complications.

Generally speaking, the vaccine is about 60 percent effective in most people (a little better than that in children, less than that in the elderly), so we would not be surprised to see influenza illness in some people who were vaccinated, but those who are vaccinated typically have less severe illness if they do get sick.

Sleepy Eye Medical Center offered senior citizens high dose vaccine this year. It is designed to trigger a better response in those 65 and over.

Most people can fight the flu at home with rest and fluids. If you are in a group at high risk for influenza complications and you develop influenza, you should contact your health care provider early on so that you can be given antiviral medication if needed (it is most effective when started within two days of contracting influenza). It is also just a good idea to check in with your health care provider or doctor in case your situation worsens.

During flu season, besides getting vaccinated, the Minnesota Department of Health recommends other steps people can take to avoid spreading or catching influenza:

Do your best to stay healthy. Get plenty of rest, physical activity and healthy eating.Stay home from school or work if you have a respiratory infection. Avoid exposing yourself to others who are sick with flu-like illness.Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue whenever you cough or sneeze, and then throw the tissue away. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your sleeve.Clean surfaces you touch frequently, such as doorknobs, water faucets, refrigerator handles and telephones.Wash your hands often with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available. 

The symptoms of influenza, which tend to come on suddenly, can include a sore throat, coughing, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. People who become severely ill with influenza-like symptoms should see a physician.

Influenza is caused by a virus and antibiotics are not effective against it.

In placing visitor restrictions on area hospitals, administrators are hoping to protect at-risk patients and staff from the virus.

“By restricting visitors in this way we can help protect patients and others who are most susceptible to contracting influenza,” said Scott Thoreson, administrator at Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Springfield. “We realize this may cause inconvenience for some people, but we are taking this step in the best interest of the health of our patients, visitors and staff members.” 

Flu activity is hitting around the U.S. with most states classifying it as widespread.