Flu season is on the upswing in the Midlands, a little earlier than typical but following a trajectory similar to last year’s early peak.
The number of patients showing up at physician offices with flu-like illnesses and the number of positive results on rapid flu tests are on the rise. Officially, the level of outbreak statewide has hit the “regional” category, and it appears headed to the more serious “widespread” level.
“Two or three weeks ago, it was sporadic, but in the last week we’ve seen many, many more cases,” said Dr. Don Moore at Lexington Medical Center Urgent Care in Irmo on Tuesday. “I’ve already had two positive tests this morning.”
Some doctors at the hospital’s various urgent care facilities are treating six to eight flu cases per shift, said hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson.
The flu numbers were high along the coast a few weeks ago, and the Midlands has begun to catch up. Still, the outbreak has been relatively minor in schools. School districts track two statistics — number of total absences and number of students sent home with flu-like symptoms.
No schools in Richland 2 have hit levels of concern in either category, and only one school in Lexington 1 has — reaching the 7 percent absentee rate, according to district officials.
Last year, the flu season peaked in late December and early January, about a month earlier than typical. Also last year, the predominant complaint by flu sufferers involved severe body aches. Moore said body aches and high fever also have been the top complaints this year.
But those similarities don’t necessarily mean this season will follow the same early-to-start and early-to-end scenario as last year.
“Flu is unpredictable,” said Dr. Riyadh Muhammad, a medical consultant with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “What we typically expect doesn’t always happen. What we do know is flu actually typically peaks in February.”
And if it peaks in February again, that means it’s not too late to get a flu vaccine. It takes about two weeks for the antibodies in the vaccine to begin to do their work. Muhammad recommends families put “flu shots” on their to-do list during the busy holiday period, allowing time for the protection to kick in by the time school starts back up in January.
The other flu-fighting tactics include washing hands well and often, coughing into a tissue or the crook of your arm and staying home if you have flu symptoms. Moore said one of his patients had a 103 fever and wanted to go to work. “If you’ve got flu symptoms, for God’s sake stay home,” said Moore, noting the common practice is to wait 24 to 48 hours after temperature returns to normal.
The other major symptoms of flu include headaches, fatigue, lethargy, a dry cough, a sore throat and a runny nose. Commonly, the symptoms hit rapidly.
While the flu makes most people miserable for a week or two, it can be deadly for the very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems. Flu shots are recommended for everyone older than six months.
Already this flu season, which began at the end of September, South Carolina hospitals have reported 256 flu-related hospitalizations and six flu-related deaths.