NEW YORK (AP) — Like a case of the flu itself, the outbreak that is hitting every county in New York state is likely to get worse before it gets better.
The number of patients admitted to hospitals throughout the state with confirmed cases of influenza spiked 55 percent last week, and one child died, according to the state Health Department.
Mirroring a wave of illness throughout 47 states, data show incidence of the flu has been widespread throughout New York for seven weeks. Doctors say flu season started early this season. Nearly 7 percent of all visits to health care providers were flu or flu-like illnesses in the first week of the year, compared with a typical 2 percent, Health Department figures show.
"It's a really bad year," said Dr. Ken Steier, a lung specialist and clinical dean at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, who estimated he's seeing five times as many cases as is typical for this time of year. "It's really been knocking people out."
And it's likely to spread more, said Dr. Paul Hamlin, a pulmonary disease specialist based on Long Island. "I would expect to see more of it in the next four weeks," he said.
Typically, cases peak and then taper off, but it's hard to predict if this is a normal cycle or the outbreak will last through late March, when the seasonal illness usually falls off.
One reason for that is that the flu is highly contagious. An uncovered sneeze in a crowded subway car or a sick colleague who refuses to stay home from work can spread the illness quickly.
"The risk of getting the flu is definitely increased when you're in close contact with strangers," said Steier. And even those who stay home until they feel better can spread the virus, he added. "You're actually still contagious after you feel better."
Steier said the incubation period — the time between first exposure and when symptoms develop — can be up to seven days. The worst symptoms usually pass in a few days, but it's still possible to pass it along up to 14 days later.
Many people can treat their symptoms with rest, chicken soup or other fluids, and aspirin or Tylenol. But those with severe symptoms should contact their doctors.
Kate Allan, 16, said three days of exhaustion and achiness drove her to visit an Urgent Care facility in Manhattan on Friday, despite the fact that she has had a flu shot.
"My mom said it might not be the flu but my dad is really sick and my brother just had the flu, but he didn't have a flu shot," she said. "We weren't really sure what it is so we came in here today."
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