Flu season has started earlier than usual and is affecting a wide-spread of people nationally.

The Arkansas Department of Health has already confirmed more than 7,000 positive flu tests have been reported through the ADH online database by health care providers since Oct. 1, 2017.

Faulkner County is among the list of counties that have reported the majority of cases.

The Conway Regional Health System has reported already seeing more than 320 positive cases of the flu through the clinics, emergency department and inpatient units the month of December with 84 percent of those cases being staring A or H3N2.

Dr. Greg Kendrick, the chief of the medial staff and director of the Conway Regional Hospitalist program, said the amount of cases they see varies from year to year but are seeing it a little worse this year and earlier than last year.

He said the growing numbers could be by chance, but the holiday season might also be a contributing factor.

"That's when you have people travel," Kendrick said. "They're around a bunch of family that they're not usually around. They get exposed to each other and then they go back to their work or their school and let it spread for a while and then do it again at Christmas and you get another blow up."

Overall, he said, it's a virus that tends to thrive during the cold-weather months.

When determining between cold versus flu, Kendrick said physicians have a hard time.

"It looks like the worst cold you've ever had," he said. "It's hard to distinguish, clinically, even for us just looking at somebody and listening to their symptoms."

Kendrick said those distinguishing features for him are whether or not a person has body aches and if they feel like they've been "hit by a truck." When people can identify with that and are possibly displaying a combination of respiratory symptoms including nasal and chest congestion, headaches, sore throat, coughing and fever, he is more likely to lean toward flu, which can be further determined with a flu test.

The illness, Kendrick said, is then commonly treated with TamiFlu, an anti-viral medication, with best results within 48 hours of symptom onset.

He said while strains can be different and break out in different human populations across the globe at different times, the one they've been seeing more this season, strain A, affects certain populations — young children, age 65 and older, pregnant women and high-risk patients with illnesses like asthma or Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonia (COP) — more severely and see more hospitalizations and a higher death rate.

"This is a mean one," Kendrick said.

Complications from the flu, he said, include pneumonia, respiratory failure and possible death.

Sarah Wilson, a registered nurse and the infection preventionist at CRMC, said this is the same strain that everyone was vaccinated against last year. She said they usually see it more of strain A at the beginning of flu season and then drifts more toward strain B but everything has come in a little earlier this year — in 2014, 2015 and 2016 the increase in patients didn't hit Conway until late January.

Kendrick said he encourages everyone, especially those more susceptible groups, to get the flu shot, even ones concerned about the affects the shot might bring.

"There is not risk for getting the flu from your flu shot," he said. "There is some risk from feeling sore from getting the flu shot but it is not a disabled virus. It is a piece of the flu that they put into you so your body can respond to it and then when it sees that piece of the flu again on a real flu virus it can attack it."

Kendrick said getting the flu is much more dangerous than getting the flu shot.

Wilson said at the hospital, all employees are required to get the vaccine, especially since the population they serve are already immunocompromised.

She said their goal through this season is to minimize exposure for everyone and if someone comes through the clinics or emergency department and are displaying flu-like symptoms, they are immediately masked. Wilson said beyond that, everyone is encouraged to wash their hands, the most important preventative measure, and exercise good cough etiquette … into the elbow and not the hand.

"The big thing about the flu is it's spread not just by contact, physical contact, but it can be spread by breathing air of somebody who has been sick with the flu," Kendrick said.

Just because he's a doctor and is around sickness all the time, he said, doesn't mean he's immune to it.

"I fear the flu," Kendrick said. "If I think somebody could have the flu and no ones thought about it yet, I'll put on a mask before I go into a room just because once you're exposed … it's just too risky. The flu is that bad."

According to the CDC, 21 states including Arkansas, Georgia, California, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Nevada and more are already experiencing widespread cases of the flu. The CDC reports at this time last year, it was different and wasn't widespread.

Kendrick said with what they're seeing — how fast it came, the momentum, the increase so early — he expects within the next few weeks will be the peak of the flu season here in the state.

"It'll be hard to know someone who doesn't have the flu," he said.

Written and published by the Log Cabin Democrat. www.thecabin.net

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