Flu season is emerging once again, a time when throats get sorer, coughs get louder and noses become runnier.

While most symptoms are annoying at best, the flu is not something to take lightly.

Influenza is a respiratory illness that results in approximately 226,000 hospitalizations and over 23,600 deaths, on average, in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Combined with pneumonia, the flu is the nation’s eighth leading cause of death.

What’s most important to know about the flu is that it’s preventable, said Dr. Alfred Damus, an infectious disease expert based in Florida.

Damus noted that getting vaccinated is the easiest way to prevent the flu and other severe health risks that can develop from flu symptoms.

Even though many people fear the dreaded flu shot, an alternative nasal spray is available and some clinics are offering a new intradermal flu shot that goes into the skin rather than a muscle.

“It’s just a tiny needle that you can hardly see, much less feel. It’s 90 percent smaller than the regular needle,” said Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist at the South Dakota Department of Health.

The peak of flu season arrived during the second week of March last year, and while South Dakota is still in the early stages of flu season, Kightlinger said that it’s important to track it each year because the virus is always changing.

“We’re ahead with cases this year. It seems like it’s going to be a faster season,” Kightlinger said. “We’ve had a cumulative of 62 confirmed cases reported already this year, which are the highest level cases since most people don’t even go into the doctor. We’re off and it’s early, and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen in the next couple weeks.”

This time last year, only four cases had been reported thus far, and the median number of cases for this week in past years is two.  

South Dakota is a leader of vaccinations received, with about 51 percent of the population being vaccinated between August 2011 and May 2012.

“For flu last year, South Dakota overall had the highest vaccination rate in the country, so we’re very pleased and very proud of that,” Kightlinger said.  

Kightlinger has also seen a rise in children receiving flu shots across the state since South Dakota’s Child Influenza Immunization Initiative began in 2007. This protection is imperative since rates of infection are highest among children.

Before the Dept. of Health began providing clinics with free vaccines, 33 percent of 1-year-olds were vaccinated compared to 68 percent last year. Three-year-olds jumped from 13 percent pre-initiative to 43 percent last year.

Kightlinger urges South Dakotans to go out to their local clinics or pharmacies and receive vaccinations as soon as possible – even if they haven’t heard their neighbors coughing and sneezing yet.

“Don’t wait or put it off,” Kightlinger said. “Some people just put it off and the virus starts spreading and then they end up getting sick. There’s really no reason to wait.”

The nasal spray flu vaccine is a good alternative to the flu shot for people who are between two and 49 years of age and who aren’t pregnant. If you’re interested in getting the intradermal shot, Kightlinger recommends calling your clinic beforehand, as not all locations have the shot.

For more information on different flu vaccines, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/ or www.flu.gov/. For specific information regarding the flue in South Dakota, visit doh.sd.gov/Flu/Default.aspx.

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