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Weekend Express with Lynn Berry

Fast-paced look at the day's essential news and buzz-worthy stories

Flu 411: What to know

NEED TO KNOW
  • The CDC has identified 29 states as having "high activity of influenza-like" illness.
  • Flu shot will only reduce your risk by about 60 percent, according to chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
The flu virus is most likely to be spread when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, according to the CDC.

A flu outbreak hitting the United States is much worse than last year, which was the mildest on record. Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says the flu outbreak is happening much "more intensely and much earlier."

The CDC reported the number of people going to the hospital for the flu has doubled in the past month. So far, 2,257 people have been hospitalized with the influenza virus, according to a CDC report. Gupta says the flu typically peaks around February, so it's hitting its stride much earlier. He explains the strain itself could be to the blame for the more serious and powerful illness.

The CDC has identified 29 states as having "high activity of influenza-like" illness. Boston has seen a particular spike in cases. Since the beginning of October, there have been 700 confirmed flu cases in Boston, 10 times more than last year. The number of cases prompted Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to declare a public health emergency.

5 questions about the flu:

Q: What is the flu?

A: The flu is classified as a "contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses," according to the CDC.  Similar to a good old-fashioned cold, it infects the nose, throat and lungs. The severity of the flu can range from mild to severe, according to the CDC.

Q: How does the flu spread?
A:
The virus is most likely to be spread when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, according to the CDC. Although it's less likely, people can pick up the virus by merely touching a surface with the virus and then touching their own mouth, eyes or nose.

Q: How can I protect myself?
A:
The CDC advises the best possible defense against the virus is getting the flu vaccine. It's not too late to get a flu shot, but be aware: it doesn't protect you 100 percent, and it does take two weeks to go into effect. A flu shot will only reduce your risk by about 60 percent, according to Dr. Gupta. Washing your hands frequently and staying at home if you feel sick can also cut down on transferring the virus to friends, family members or co-workers.

Q: When should I seek immediate medical attention if I begin feeling sick?
A:
If you are short of breath or can't keep fluids down, see a doctor as soon as possible to avoid complications from dehydration, according to Dr. David Zich, an internal medicine and emergency medicine physician.

Q: How do I tell the difference between the cold and flu?
A:
The CDC warns the two have several similar symptoms. Going to the doctor and being tested for the flu within the first few days of feeling sick are the only way to know for sure. If you're still left asking is it a cold or flu, this guide may help.

If you're looking for a flu shot, check the flu vaccine finder at flu.gov.

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