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Flu Season in full swing

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Many West Virginians may be spending the first month of the new year in bed battling the flu.

As peak season approaches, health officials are cautioning residents to get flu vaccinations as soon as possible.

"If you get the flu vaccine, there's a good chance you will be protected. It takes a couple of weeks to develop immunity, so I would not wait until the last minute," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department. "Now would be a good time, actually, because the weather predictions are that we will have cold weather the next few weeks."

This year, the main flu strain is AH3, which is covered in the current vaccine.

"What we know about influenza season this year is that it's already made tens of thousands ill across the nation," Gupta said.

And this year has been particularly bad. Gupta said it has been the worst flu season in the past three years.

Why is this season so bad? Gupta said it's hard to tell because the flu is unpredictable.

However, he said there is one problem health officials from all over the country have observed. Many who are hospitalized are young children, pregnant mothers, those older than 65 and those with chronic medial conditions.

Many of those people have not had a flu vaccination, Gupta said.

And peak season isn't here yet, Gupta said. Typically, flu season peaks anywhere from late January to early March, Gupta said.

"We've been following the figures, and we have a few more weeks to go. We started to rise a few weeks before we typically do," he explained. "So we could either be reaching our peak early or have to brace ourselves for a few more weeks. We won't know about that until we reach that peak."

This year also has been bad for stomach flu, Gupta said.

Like the seasonal flu, outbreaks have mainly been in day cares and schools. The bug also shares another similarity in that it can last up to seven days. 

How can people tell the difference between the two? Gupta said people with the seasonal flu will feel like "they were hit by a truck. Symptoms can include fever, extreme malaise, fatigue, dry cough and sore throat.

Stomach flu symptoms meanwhile include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, fever and diarrhea.

Gupta said as with the seasonal flu, it is important for people to stay home, drink plenty of fluids and get sleep.

The stomach flu can be prevented by practicing good "hand-to-mouth" hygiene, Gupta said.

Gupta said high-risk people should see a doctor as soon as possible. Those at higher risk include children younger than 4 years old, those older than 50 and people diagnosed with diabetes, metabolic illnesses or other illnesses affecting the respiratory, cardiovascular or immune system. Pregnant women also are encouraged to visit a doctor.

"Always remember to practice good hand hygiene," Gupta said. "Wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, cough into your sleeve and when you're sick, stay home. Don't go to work. Some of these measures prevent you from getting the stomach flu and the seasonal flu."