Area hospitals are coping with a surge of patients with achy bodies, fevers and sore throats as the nation grapples with a flu season that has hit earlier and harder than usual.
The flu virus is unpredictable, so no one knows when the outbreak will peak or how bad the season will be, but a doctor said the pieces are in place to potentially make it one of the worst influenza seasons in recent years.
The principal strain infecting people this year is one generally associated with more severe symptoms, said Dr. Andrea Dugas, an emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is leading research on the flu virus.
"I believe with the early upswing in cases and the type of strain that we are seeing, this is definitely gearing up to be a bad year," she said.
The number of cases at Hopkins already is more than double that of a typical year, Dugas said. Flu season usually peaks in mid-January or February but began increasing rapidly at the end of November, the earliest flu season since 2003, she noted.
Statewide, about 10,000 people had gone to emergency rooms or doctors offices for flu-like symptoms through Dec. 22, the most recent figures available from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. There have been no confirmed deaths.
Jerome Payne, 39, sought treatment at Greater Baltimore Medical Center on Thursday after beginning to feel ill on New Year's Day and eventually feeling like "a Mack truck had hit him," he said. Hospital officials said early Thursday that 125 patients had been treated for flu-like symptoms since Sunday in GBMC's emergency room.
As he lay in a hospital bed holding his head and stomach, Payne said he had had the flu at least three times before, but never with symptoms so severe.
"The fact that I'm in the emergency room tells you how bad I feel," said Payne, who was suffering aches, chills and stomach pains.
Dr. Jonathan Hansen, chair of emergency medicine at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center, said the virus is sickening patients longer and with more severe symptoms, including diarrhea and vomiting.
"The symptoms seem to be lingering for several days or weeks, forcing people to seek medical attention," he said. "Some years the symptoms are less pronounced, and this year it seems to be more severe."
Franklin Square, which has the Baltimore area's busiest emergency room, was treating 20 patients a day for flu-like symptoms the first week of December and has treated about 50 a day since Christmas, 10 percent more than in a typical year. The hospital is running low on flu tests and is testing only patients who might suffer complications because of other factors, such as old age, diabetes or other health problems.
University of Maryland Medical Center also has seen an increase in cases, but a spokeswoman was unable to provide details Thursday.
The country last faced a bad flu season in 2009, when the H1N1 strain, known as swine flu, killed about 12,000 people and sickened millions. Maryland reported 45 lab-confirmed deaths, including those of five children, though many cases were not confirmed. The pandemic prompted a nationwide vaccination campaign.
Since then, flu cases have been less severe, and the season did not ramp up until March last year.
"The last few seasons were very mild," said Dr. Jeff Sternlicht, chairman of emergency medicine at GBMC. "I definitely believe this year is worse than normal."
Medical experts aren't sure why.
"I just have to suspect that the flu is very sporadic, and some years it's severe and some years it's not," Sternlicht said.
State epidemiologist Dr. David Blythe encouraged people to get vaccinated, a strategy that is 70 percent effective.
Dugas said this year's vaccine is a fairly precise match for the strains that are infecting people.
Blythe said he hopes this flu season is not among the worst. "There are steps we can all take to prevent that," he said.
Blythe and other health experts urge people to wash their hands frequently, cover their mouths when they cough and not share food.
The flu virus is spread through droplets from an infected person. While emergency rooms are filling up with patients with flu symptoms, doctors say there isn't much they can do once people are infected. Most patients can ride out flu while taking Tylenol or other painkillers for aches and fever.
For those at higher risk of complications, such as young children, the elderly or those with other illnesses, an anti-viral medication might be prescribed.
Payne, who works in sales and says he has never had a flu shot, is one person who won't take chances with flu again.
"I feel horrible," the GBMC patient said. "This is the last year I don't get a flu shot."
Tips for preventing flu
•Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you are sick, keep your distance from others.
•Stay home from work, school and errands when sick to avoid spreading the virus.
•Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
•Avoid touching your hands, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
•Practice good health habits such as getting plenty of sleep, exercising, managing stress, drinking enough fluids and eating nutritiously.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
By the numbers
(In Maryland this flu season)
•Flu-related emergency room visits: 8,332
•Flu-related health care provider visits: 1,672
•Flu-related hospitalizations: 244
•Flu-related respiratory disease outbreaks: 11
•Positive clinical flu tests: 2,362
•Positive state laboratory flu tests: 571
•Flu-related deaths: 0
Source: Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Text BUSINESS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun Business text alerts