This season's flu is hitting Tampa Bay area residents harder and sending them to hospital emergency rooms in higher numbers than usual.
Nearly 5 percent of all Hillsborough County emergency department visits last week were for flu-like symptoms - triple the number for the same week last year, health department reports show. Pinellas County hospitals last week reported a 40 percent increase in influenza over last year.
Some believe the increase can be attributed to an earlier spike in the flu season's peak, while others are taking extra precautions to stem the spread of the fever, aches and coughs.
"We're isolating (flu) patients. Usually we only do that when it gets extreme," said Emily Nipps, spokeswoman for Bayfront Medical Center. On Monday night, the downtown St. Petersburg emergency room saw 181 patients with flu symptoms, 50 more than expected.
Surges in emergency department visits are being reported from Brandon Regional Hospital to Florida Hospital campuses in Tampa and Wesley Chapel. The Tampa facility saw its December flu caseload jump to 131 this year, compared with just three in December 2011.
National health officials on Friday said flu season started early this winter, and includes a strain that tends to make people sicker. Health officials have forecast a potentially bad flu season following last year's unusually mild one.
The numbers released Friday hint that the flu season may already have peaked in some spots, including Florida. Flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Those with less activity include Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina in South, the first region hit in the current flu season.
The increase in flu-like symptoms is not unexpected; flu season tends to reach a peak in winter months, said Jacqueline Tolley, spokeswoman for St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. It remains to be seen if the season ends up being worse than usual.
"We're just seeing the influx in patients earlier than we have in the past," Tolley said of visits at St. Joseph's and 10 other area hospitals operated by BayCare Health System.
Regardless, the hospital visits are a reminder of the risk people face when they are not protected by the flu vaccine. The CDC report about 112 million Americans, ages 6 months and up, followed the recommendation to be vaccinated for the flu.
Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.
Most people with flu have a mild illness. But people with severe symptoms should see a doctor. They may be given antiviral drugs or other medications to ease symptoms.
CDC officials believe this year's vaccine matches about 62 percent of the strains floating in the air. Hand washing, covering your cough and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers also helps, said Steve Huard, Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman.
"It's still a good time to get a flu shot," he said.