Think twice before not washing your hands.
The state Department of Health has declared a "widespread" level of influenza outbreaks after flu cases were reported in 58 counties.
"Influenza has made an early appearance here in Pennsylvania," Health Department spokeswoman Holli Senior said Wednesday. "We nearly doubled [the amount of cases reported] in a week's time."
There were 448 laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu last week, compared to 172 cases statewide the week before. Only a fraction of total flu cases are confirmed by lab tests.
A single flu-related death was reported last week, a weekly influenza report said.
This time last year, only 12 cases of influenza were reported, Senior said.
Flu prevention tips
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing
Stay at home when ill
Wash your hands often with soap and water (alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also be used when soap and water are not handy)
Clean and disinfect high-use surfaces, especially if someone has been coughing or sneezing in the area
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health
"However, last season was very mild. It was a very mild flu season - shockingly mild," Senior said. "No one can really explain why it's here sooner, but we just know that it is."
Despite the widespread cases of the flu, it is not too late for residents to receive a flu vaccination, Senior said.
Area health officials said getting the flu vaccine is the only definite way to keep from getting sick and possibly spreading the virus to others
"It is certainly recommended," said Dr. Linnane Batzel, chief medical officer at Altoona Regional. "It's not too late to get a flu shot."
Flu season typically begins in October and can last through March, Batzel said.
Children and the elderly are at the highest risk of contracting the flu, Batzel said. But any person could be a potential carrier. Even if an individual has a strong immune system and does not get the flu, they could easily pass it on to others, she said.
"You could be a carrier ... and come into contact with people who are at risk," Batzel said. "Part of public health is for everybody to decrease the risk if spreading illnesses."
Residents at risk or individuals who work with the children or elderly should seek out the vaccination, she said.
Supplies of the vaccine are in stock across the state and have been proven effective against this year's strain of the flu, Senior said.
"There is plenty of vaccine available. The vaccine, from what we're seeing, is well matched for what's circulating in the commonwealth," Senior said.
The vaccination can take up to two weeks before it is fully effective, she said. The sooner individuals obtain the vaccine, the greater the chance they will avoid getting sick from the flu or possibly spreading it to others.
In Blair County, health officials have reported 18 confirmed cases of influenza since the beginning of October, according to the Department of Health.
Pharmacists at Kopp Drug in Hollidaysburg have seen an increase in the number of customers visiting the store to get vaccinated, Pharmacy Manager Nicole Dixon said.
"From what I'm hearing this year, they nailed it spot-on," Dixon said of the vaccine. "The vaccine this year is doing a very good job preventing the flu for people who have the vaccination."
Individuals need to watch for "severe" symptoms which include headaches, a fever in excess of 100 degrees and muscle aches that often come about suddenly and at the same time.
"A true flu is when you have those hot and cold fevers that don't stop," Dixon said. "You can't get warm, aches where your entire body is just in pain."
"You're down for the count, you're miserable."
Dixon said most adults tend to stop getting their immunizations after age 18, but the vaccine varies each year to help combat the different flu strains.
People who fly or travel often are also at risk because of the close quarters and increased exposure to people from different areas, Dixon added.
While those individuals may not get the flu, they could easily spread the sickness to friends and family members over the holiday season, who may then become ill.
"The more people that we have vaccinated, the less chance the flu can really get going," Dixon said.
In addition to getting vaccinated, residents should take simple precautions to avoid getting sick, Batzel said.
Frequent hand washing and covering an individual's face or mouth while sneezing are all common-sense ways to avoid spreading germs, she said.
"If you think that you are getting sick, you should be keeping away from others," Batzel added.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.