Early flu outbreak spreads across the country

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SARASOTA, Fla. - The U.S. is experiencing it's earliest and worst outbreak of the flu virus in a decade.  Forty-one states are being hit hard, seeing a 25% increase in the past two weeks.  Tragically, 18 children have died.

But, there's better news for us on the Suncoast: officials with the Sarasota County Health Department say so far, the number of influenza cases is normal, but that doesn't mean it's safe to let your guard down.

The influenza virus knows no boundaries. “Which is spread by droplets when you cough or sneeze,” says Donna Keith, RN and Immunization Program Manager for the Sarasota County Health Department.

She says that unlike the common cold, “Influenza is extremely dangerous with potentially very serious consequences, including death with infants and with the elderly.”

Florida is one of the 41 states with widespread cases of influenza.  And while local health officials recommend getting a flu shot if you're eligible, they say there are other things you need to be doing as well. “It's very important for us all to wash our hands very regularly. If you have any of those symptoms it's important for you to wash your hands regularly. Stay home if you feel sick, so you don't infect other people,” says Keith.

According to the Center for Disease Control, people with the flu can spread it to others up to six feet away, and while it's less likely that people get it by touching a surface with the virus on it, it's still possible. “Habitually, I am probably aware of certain things, like touching things, or keeping my hands clean,” says Sarasota resident Dave.

Keith says should you notice these symptoms: “body aches are included, and there's usually a fever. It generally keeps you from doing your normal activities,” your best bet is to get to your doctor-- and fast. If caught soon enough, she says the prescription Tamiflu can get you back on the road to recovery.

Keith says products like Emergen-C can help build up your immune system, or help you fight off the common cold quicker, but, she says your two best bets for staying healthy this flu season are to get the vaccine and keep your hands clean.

The Sarasota County Health Department offers free flu shots to anyone eligible under the age of 18, and Keith says many pharmacies also offer the vaccine.