Influenza is on the rise nationwide, classified at an "epidemic" level Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Madera County Public Health Department reported a county woman over the age of 60 died Monday after being admitted to the hospital with a flu -- the county's first flu-related death this year.
Still, California remained one of only three states in the nation where the flu was not listed as "widespread," according to data last compiled by the CDC Jan. 5.
Yet there are still concerns for California, which usually sees a later peak in flu cases -- with the flu spreading west from the east, said Biana Grogg, nursing director for Madera County Public Health Department.
"In the eastern part of the country, they started seeing the increase in late November and early December," Grogg said. "The flu season came earlier this year in general in the U.S., and it's hard to know what that means. It could be a shorter (flu) season, or it could be far more cases for longer."
Flu shots are encouraged for everyone older than 6 months of age, stated the county health department.
As of Jan. 5, the California Department of Public Health reported four influenza-related deaths this season among people younger than 65. Nationwide, 20 children with confirmed flu tests have died, reported the New York Times Jan. 11.
Locally, Dr. Jerry Chastain at Kaiser Permanente in Oakhurst said Tuesday that he's seen a lot more flu cases over the past two weeks than he normally does.
"Last week was a really bad week," said Dr. Chastain. "I saw five flu cases here in the office, and another two of my patients who had the flu were seen in the urgent care down in Fresno."
He said he usually only sees one flu patient a week.
To differentiate a flu (a contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system) from a cold, the most obvious symptoms include fever and headache -- both rare with the common cold, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"What we're seeing is an abrupt onset of fever, plus they have a cough and/or muscle aches," said Dr. Chastain of the biggest indicators of a flu. "If they have severe symptoms -- muscle aches, a cough, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, they should be seen by a doctor."
If doctors can catch it within a 48-hour window, they can treat it with an anti-viral medicine that can help decrease the duration of flu symptoms, he said.
The following people are at a higher risk for complicated influenza, and will likely benefit more from a flu shot: People with chronic medical conditions that require frequent medication attention; pregnant women; people will be in contact with an infant younger than 6 months of age during the flu season; children under 5; and adults 55 and older.
People who are ill should take actions to stop the spread of the flu, such as: While sick, limit contact with others; cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing; wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitizer; and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Getting a flu shot
"It is not too late to get vaccinated," said Dr. Jon Forncrook, chief medical officer of Camarena Health in Oakhurst. "Our flu season may not peak for several more weeks, so I encourage everyone to get vaccinated to protect not only themselves, but those with whom they come into contact,"
"You can still get the flu (if you get a flu shot), because there are many varieties that can cause a flu-like illness," Dr. Chastain said. "But the vaccination can help decrease the severity if they were to come in contact with that particular strain."
The county's public health department will be offering flu shots for $5 in their Oakhurst office, located at 40325 Highway 41, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, and from 9 a.m. to noon Friday, Jan. 25. If an individual can't afford to pay for a flu shot, no one will be turned away.
As of Monday, Camarena Health, located adjacent to the Sierra Star on Crane Valley Road (426), had more than 100 free flu shots available, with no appointment necessary. As of Tuesday, Kaiser Permanente off Highway 49 in Oakhurst had 260 flu vaccinations left, with 29 pediatric.
Anyone older than 12 can also get a flu shot at the Madera County Public Health Department's main office, located at 14215 Road 28 in Madera, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Children under 12 can get a flu shot, along with routine immunizations, at the same location from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. on Wednesdays.
Details: Madera County Public Health Department, (559) 675-7893.