Frequent hand washing and vaccination are the best ways to prevent the spread of flu. (Photo: Steve Morris, Flickr)

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and Erlanger Health System have reported an early uptick in the number of flu cases and influenza-like symptoms this year, and are discussing ways to minimize the spread.

There have been about 200 influenza-like cases this year compared to this time in previous years at the health department. Erlanger reported an increase of 122 cases.

Though influenza is a nonreportable disease, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department still keeps records of cases to track the severity of flu season. The graph looks at the number of cases in certain weeks of the year. (Graph: Contributed)

Because these numbers have increased more quickly than usual, doctors are encouraging citizens to get vaccinated, which officials said is the best way to prevent the illness.

Getting the vaccine can also lessen the severity and duration of symptoms.

Flu season doesn’t usually peak until January and February.

Precautions such as washing your hands and avoiding others if you have flu-like symptoms are best, according to Dr. Shavonda Thomas, internal medicine physician with Erlanger’s Community Health Centers.

“Most individuals are strong enough to fight off the illness with supportive care such as adequate rest, fluids and acetaminophen/ibuprofen,” she also said. “If you feel ill, you should also avoid contact with others in order to decrease [the] spread of the virus.”

Other tips to avoid catching the flu include wiping off contaminated surfaces and avoiding touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.

Officials also stressed that it’s important for senior citizens and those who will be around children 6 months old and younger to get the vaccination because the flu could lead to more severe consequences for these age groups.

Not only are you protecting yourself, but you’re protecting everyone you have contact with,” said Sharon Goforth, health department special project coordinator and registered nurse. “If you don’t have it, you’re not going to spread it.”

The best way to tell if you have the flu as opposed to a stomach bug is to think about how quickly the symptoms set in, she also said.

“With the flu, there’s an abrupt onset of symptoms,” Goforth said. “Within a few hours, you could be feeling very ill. You might go to bed feeling perfectly fine, but wake up feeling very, very sick.”

These symptoms can include body aches, fever, fatigue and some upper respiratory issues.

Once you realize you have the flu, the best thing to do is get early treatment.

“The perfect thing to do is to get early treatment if you’re pretty sure you have it,” Goforth said. “Go see your physician, because the sooner you start those antivirals, the less time you’re going to be sick.”

You should also see your physician if you’re experiencing trouble breathing, are dehydrated or are experiencing chest pains.

Below are the numbers of cases Erlanger and the health department saw in January 2017, 2016 and 2015.

January 2017

  • Erlanger: 177
  • Health department: About 300

January 2016

  • Erlanger: 55
  • Health department: About 100

January 2015

  • Erlanger: 50
  • Health department: About 60

Alina Hunter-Grah is a contributing writer. She currently attends UTC, where she was previously the news editor of the student newspaper, The University Echo. Alina also worked at CNN during the summer of 2017 and is the former Chattanooga correspondent for 2nd & Church, a literary magazine based out of Nashville. You can reach Alina at [email protected] or on Twitter @alinahuntergrah