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SALT LAKE CITY — It's that time of the year again.
Kids are sniffling, co-workers are coughing and people are suffering. Sleep is harder to get, and drugstore shelves where pain medication and decongestants can be found are emptying.
Influenza is on the rise, and just as in recent years, the illness has fast become widespread in the state, according to the Utah Department of Health.
"If you haven't gotten your influenza vaccine, you should get it," said Gregg Reed, a health department epidemiologist. "It not only helps yourself, but helps those around you. It helps stop the spread of disease in your community."
And while immunization experts try to predict exactly which strains of the flu will be circulating in the coming year, sometimes the vaccine falls short.
But some protection is still better than no protection, Reed said.
This year's vaccine is believed to be anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent effective, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though strains are circulating and often mutate after vaccinations are disseminated.
Flu symptoms — including fever, cough and/or sore throat, and body aches and pains — come on quickly and strong, said Reed. Common cold symptoms are similar, though less severe, and the two can sometimes only be differentiated by a doctor.
"Influenza really hits you like a ton of bricks," Reed said, adding that the flu "causes substantial illness" throughout the state every year.
Already, more than 400 Utahns have been hospitalized due to the disease this flu season, including men, women and children. The majority are older than age 65, but a large number of adults have ended up in the hospital with influenza symptoms, according to the state health department's latest weekly report on the disease.
The illness can be more severe for the elderly, children and people whose immune systems are compromised, Reed said.
While Utahns may have died with influenza-associated illnesses this year, deaths related to the disease are not officially tracked and reported through the health department, as it is difficult to determine whether influenza causes a person to die. It is often a contributing factor, according to CDC mortality surveillance.
Some states are reporting a higher number of flu-related deaths compared with previous years, and many are spiking since the beginning of the year, according to the Associated Press, but Utah cases are increasing at a rate similar to last year.
In Utah, the highest number of cases is reported in Salt Lake County, but every area of the state is experiencing influenza-like illnesses, the health department data show.
The Bear River and Davis County health districts reported the highest levels of activity, as of Dec. 30, but Reed said more areas are showing increased signs of the spread of disease and he expects the next report to reflect that.
Influenza really hits you like a ton of bricks.
–Gregg Reed, health department epidemiologist
CDC reports show that at least 36 states are showing widespread influenza activity and the predominant strain across the nation is Influenza A, the H3 subtype that was first detected in 2011. Disease activity is listed as "regional" in Utah according to the latest map, but that will change as it is spreading more rapidly, Reed said.
"We expect it to increase, and we need to take preventive action to prevent additional illness," he said.
Utahns can monitor circulating illnesses using Intermountain Healthcare's GermWatch, which tracks current activity levels of disease in the state. Influenza is listed as having high activity throughout Utah, as well as other respiratory illnesses.
In addition to the flu shot, another line of defense for influenza is antiviral medication. It can be obtained from a doctor and must be taken soon after symptoms appear. If influenza is suspected, antiviral use, much like the vaccine, can shorten the duration and severity of illness.
"It's not a substitute for getting the vaccine, but can treat the flu," Reed said.
The influenza season began Oct. 1 and could stretch into May. It typically peaks in late February or March.
Rich Lakin, state health department immunization program manager, said a lot of people are getting flu shots despite the rumors that it might not be 100 percent effective.
The Non family had appointments to be immunized Thursday at Salt Lake County Health Department's South Main Street clinic, hoping to avoid any complications associated with the disease.
"It's still better than nothing," Lakin said. "It is very beneficial to get the flu vaccine."