Flu in full swing nationwide: How does DC area fare?

FILE - This Jan. 10, 2013 file photo shows vials of flu vaccines in Philadelphia. No vaccine is perfect, and it can take many years to find out how well a new vaccine works and how long it lasts.. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

WASHINGTON — The flu is now in full swing across more than half the U.S., according to new federal data — and the D.C. region is not immune.

Nationwide, the number of people seeing their doctors for flu-like illnesses spiked in the last week of December — the most recent data available show — including in Maryland and Virginia, where the rates of reported flu-like illnesses is now categorized as “high.” Twenty-four other states report high levels of flu activity.

Maryland, which reported its first confirmed flu case in October, had seen only “minimal” levels of flu up until the week of Christmas, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s FluWatch website.

Now, in both Maryland and Virginia, influenza is considered widespread, according to the CDC.

And the worst may be yet to come.

“We do have to keep in mind that sometimes the flu season starts in November-December, but it can peak in late January, sometimes early February even,” said Dr. Sujata Ambardar, an infectious disease physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital and the chair of infection control at the hospital.

Still, the D.C. area appears to be faring better than many other parts of the country. Most parts of the Midwest, the South and the Southwest were reporting higher levels of flu-like illnesses, according to the CDC. (D.C. itself reported low rates of flu-like illnesses in the most recent update).

The new federal data indicate the flu may be more severe this year than last year. The rate of hospitalizations for flu-related illnesses is on par with the rate for the 2014-2015 flu season, which “was the most severe season in recent years,” the CDC said in it latest “FluView” report.

At Inova Fairfax, Ambardar said the hospital had seen a significant number of people hospitalized for both flu and pneumonia, which is often a complication. But Ambardar said the numbers were in line with a typical flu season so far.

This year’s flu is also leading to more hospitalizations among adults age 50 to 64 — typically thought to be a sturdier population than the aged about which caution is often expressed. The number of hospitalizations among those middle-aged adults was outpacing the hospitalizations for children younger than 5, the CDC said.

Ambardar said it’s hard to know exactly why this year’s flu is hitting the middle-aged harder than usual. While we may think of people between 50 and 64 having normal immune systems, they may have underlying conditions “that may put them in the high-risk category,” she said.

So what should you do if you start feeling under the weather?

“The things that you want to try to distinguish are between a cold, where people just may have a stuffy nose … as opposed to having fever, muscle aches and more significant or higher fever,” Ambardar said.

If you see the mercury rise above about 100.5, “then that would be concern that you may be getting flu,” she said.

And remember, it’s not too late to get your flu shot.

“Flu season actually lasts through March, possibly longer, so we’re giving people flu shots even as late as February or March sometimes.”

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