The 2017-2018 flu season is off to an early start in Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services says as of November 25, there have been 1,545 cases of the flu reported. The number of cases at the same time last year was 379.

The MDHSS says those numbers could indicate flu season is coming early or that it will be particularly severe. For 2016-2017, there were more than 70,000 confirmed influenza cases in Missouri. If that trends continues, Missouri could see even more cases during the 2017-2018 season.

"We know that historically, the intensity or prevalence of flu can vary from year to year. But this year, all indications are that we are seeing more flu earlier in the year and we anticipate more cases," said Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "Now is the time to get your flu shot if you haven't already. The flu shot combined with proper handwashing are the two most effective things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones this holiday season."

According to the MDHSS, the flu spreads every year, but the timing and severity of flu season is unpredictable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that flu results in between 9.2 million and 35.6 million illnesses, between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations, and between 12,000 and 56,000 deaths annually in the U.S.

The most common symptoms of flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and muscle or body aches. Flu viruses can spread by tiny droplets when a person with flu coughs, sneezes, or talks. It's important to remember that certain people are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia or bronchitis, if they get sick. Those at high risk for flu-related complications include people age 65 years and older, people with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.

The MDHSS says a flu vaccine is the best form of defense to protect yourself and your loved ones this winter. It takes about two-weeks for the vaccine to reach its full protective abilities. Now is the time to get vaccinated so you can protect yourself and loved ones ahead of the upcoming holidays. In addition to getting your flu shot, take these steps to prevent the spread of flu:

 - Avoid close contact with sick people.

- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after touching shared objects or surfaces such as door knobs, light switches, remote controls, shopping counters, debit card readers, etc.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

- Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces.

- Stay home while you're sick and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
It is easy for flu viruses to spread as you travel during the holidays and get together with friends and family.

People with flu can pass the virus on to others a day before feeling sick and sometimes for about a week after feeling better, so it's important to use these steps throughout the flu season.

For more information or to find a flu-vaccine location in the area, visit health.mo.gov/flu.

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