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Hard-Hitting Flu Strain Strikes Early, Health Officials Warn

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- This year's flu season is now in full swing and IS expected to get worse. The flu season typically hits hardest in January and February, but can last until May. With many returning home after holiday travels, the flu is able to spread quickly.

Widespread flu activity is now being reported in much of the country, including the East Coast and in the West in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Texas and Alaska.  

In Washington state, Tim McDonald with the Snohomish County Health District says they have already seen an increase in flu cases.

"We are having an early influenza season.  And it's a serious influenza season and we've had a definite uptick in hospitalizations," says McDonald.

But why would this flu season be spreading so quickly, so soon? Health experts are exploring the possibilities for a cause of this fast-spreading flu.  Is this a new flu? One that isn't in this year's vaccine? One to which we're not all immune?

Health officials say the problem is that many cases are coming from a strain of influenza -- called subtype B -- which was not included in this year's vaccine.

"It's a new strain that is not absolutely new, but a little bit new to our population," McDonald says.

Dr. Richard Besser, ABC's chief health and medical editor, says that often people are infectious long before they know it, spreading the virus even further.

"There hasn't been an outbreak this early for 10 years, and that year the flu season was severe.  We know that with just one sneeze, the virus can spread almost 20 feet in just seconds.  You're infectious a full day before you show any symptoms; a bad mix," he says.

The fast-spreading nature of this flu has health workers scrambling. McDonald advises that anyone over six months of age is recommended to get a flu shot. A shot helps stop the spread as well as immunize each patient.

"I would urge everyone, not just for themselves, but for their friends, neighbors and relatives and their children, to get vaccinated right away," he says.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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