Editor's note: This story was updated on Dec. 30 with a CDC update.
Dec. 17, 2014 -- Flu season is in full force, according to the CDC, which is reporting widespread disease activity in 36 states for the week ending Dec. 20. That’s up from just 14 states in the previous week’s flu report.
There were four flu deaths in children reported as well, bringing the total for this season to 15.
The CDC says the flu has reached “epidemic” levels.
In many states, flu has had a big impact on schoolchildren. In at least two counties in the South, entire school systems started the holiday break early because of an increase in kids sick with flu-like symptoms.
The Polk County, GA, school district began its holiday break on Dec. 17.
Out of the district’s 7,800 students, 1,300 of them were out sick leading up to the holiday break, along with 78 of the district’s 500 teachers, Polk County Superintendent William Hunter, PhD, told Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA. “The decision was pretty easy to make.”
The Cherokee County school district in western North Carolina also closed its schools early for the winter break.
There were various reports from Chicago to Ohio to Georgia of individual schools shutting down before the break as well, and warnings went out to parents about keeping kids home if they showed symptoms of illness.
One school district in suburban Atlanta even sent a letter to parents asking them to simply keep sick children home from school, and not to try and cover up their kids' fever symptoms by giving them fever-reducing drugs.
Less-Effective Flu Vaccine
It’s not clear whether the flu is solely to blame for the uptick in illnesses.
Earlier this month, the CDC said some of this year’s main flu strains had “drifted” from the strains included in the flu vaccine, meaning the vaccine may not be as effective as they'd hoped.
“The flu virus can be unpredictable, and what we’ve seen so far this year is concerning,” says CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH.
Frieden says this year’s dominant flu strain is H3N2, a subtype of the flu virus that tends to be more serious. “We know that in seasons where H3 viruses dominate, we tend to have worse flu years, including more hospitalizations and deaths from influenza.”
Because we’re seeing a season with less-effective vaccine, Frieden says it's key to rely on the basics, including:
- Wash your hands.
- Cover your cough.
- Stay home from work or school whenever you think you might be sick.
“Fever is the big sign usually for flu, and the sudden onset,” Shu says. “For the flu patients, parents have to drag them out of bed to come to the office, and they’re lying down on the exam table.”
With colds, she says, patients are more talkative, and up and walking around.
But strep often doesn’t come with cold symptoms.
Bottom line, she says: If your child is sick, have them stay home.
“Keep them home until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours, or until they’re alert enough to be able to sit through a full day of school without needing to rest or cough a ton,” she says. “They’re not going to be able to concentrate if they’re feeling crummy and coughing all the time anyway.”