While the flu season in the United States got off to its earliest start in nearly a decade, it's hasn't hit in full force locally, and health care professionals are hoping the reminder of the season will stay that way.
The Center for Disease Control told the Associated Press that higher-than-normal reports of the flu have come from the southern United States, primarily Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and that the strain of flu is making people sicker than other types.
The Iowa Department of Public Health's website reported that as of Dec. 1, only .7 percent of all outpatient visits were for patients with influenza-like illness. Of those treated for flu symptoms, just 16 percent were confirmed as actual cases of influenza.
"It has been kind of hard to tell up to this point," said Dr. Ruth Forde, a physician with the Community Health Center of Fort Dodge. "The months of October through May are what we consider flu season, and the peak time is usually in February. We haven't treated many cases yet, and haven't really seen an early occurrence."
Jennifer Sheda, with the Webster County Health Department, said that so far, the flu hasn't been severe in the region, but it is still good to take precautions against it.
"You should still cover your cough," Sheda said. "Sneeze to your elbow, and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer."
Sheda said it is never too late to protect against the flu by getting vaccinated.
"It's never too late to get vaccinated," said Sheda. "We have plenty of the vaccine on hand at our office."
The Webster County Health Department is offering walk-in flu shots from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday for a $20 fee. They will also accept Medicare or Medicaid.
Anyone 6 months old and older is encouraged to get vaccinated.
"We have the different dosages for the different age groups," said Sheda.
Forde also recommends anyone with an immune-compromising medical condition such as cancer or diabetes be vaccinated against the flu.
Sheda said a common misconception is that the vaccine protects against norovirus, which is commonly called the stomach flu.
"That is actually not a flu at all," said Sheda.
Symptoms of norovirus include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Influenza symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, cough, sore throat, and body aches.
"It's important to stay protected," said Sheda.