BALTIMORE — Maryland already has 11 confirmed cases of the flu and the "official" flu season hasn't really started yet.
Last year there were more than 3,200 flu-related hospitalizations and 82 deaths in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Of those deaths, four were under the age of 18.
"October is the ideal month to get the flu vaccine," said Dr. Joseph Weidner at Stone Run Family Medicine in Rising Sun. "It kicks in well before the season starts and lasts well beyond."
David Blythe, a medical epidemiologist with the Maryland Health Department, said getting the vaccine — even if it does not prevent the flu — still adds a layer of protection.
"If you still get the flu, it can prevent hospitalization and even death," Blythe said.
Weidner called these 11 early cases "sporadic," noting that in Cecil County the flu season typically goes into full force around the Christmas holidays and peaks in late January into February.
Pharmacies, health care offices and clinics are already offering the flu vaccine. Robert R. Neall, state health secretary, is urging anyone from age six months and up to get vaccinated now.
“We don’t know yet whether flu activity this early indicates a particularly bad season on the horizon,” Neall said. “Still, we can’t emphasize strongly enough — get your flu shot now. Don’t put it off. The vaccine is widely available.”
That can be either injected or inhaled, Blythe said.
"FluMist is an option this year," he said of the inhaled version of protection. In either form he called it "the best single prevention you can have."
The protection is especially important to children age 5 and younger, those 50 and older, people with chronic illnesses, residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities, those in the health care field, pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy, anyone considered extremely obese, children and adolescents on aspirin therapy regimens, and people with compromised immune systems.
The strains of flu seen so far this season have been Type A, or H3N2 and Type B. This year's vaccine was engineered to protect against both.
Typical flu symptoms include muscle or body aches, headache, congestion, fatigue and sore throat. Not every sufferer gets the fever or chills many associate with influenza, or flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge anyone who suspects they have the flu to stay home from work or school and contact their health care provider. Rest and hydration will help along with over the counter medications for congestion, fever and body aches in most cases.
To reduce the risk of getting the flu wash your hands often, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and use hand sanitizer frequently.