Coughs and sniffles around the office may be a good indicator that flu season has started, but health officials say it’s too soon to know whether it will rival last year’s severe season.
About 1.73 percent of patient visits to reporting doctor’s offices, clinics, and school health services in Massachusetts as of Nov. 30 showed influenza-like illnesses, defined by the state Department of Public Health as a fever of more than 100 degrees and a cough and/or sore throat.
“We will likely see more flu cases as the season continues,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, who directs the department’s division of epidemiology and immunization.
Early rates of flu-like illnesses this season appear similar to those rates from last year. But last year’s season ended up one of most severe on record, health officials have said.
The season peaked in February and leveled off in the spring, according to a DPH report. Although the latest flu season is just getting started, Madoff said, there’s no need for concern yet.
“Every flu season is different, but there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual going on so far,” he said.
The most common symptoms of the flu include a fever, cough, and sore throat, but they can also include body aches, headache, chills, runny nose, and fatigue, according to the DPH website.
Flu season generally begins in the fall and lasts through March. Looking forward, the DPH expects the rate of patients with flu-like illnesses to increase into the winter.
A weekly flu report on the DPH blog reported increasing rates of the virus in the week leading up to Nov. 30. The total number of flu-like illnesses is unclear, according to the DPH, since the data collected come from a limited number of reporting doctors.
At least 198 lab-confirmed cases of the flu had been reported as of Nov. 30. This is almost double that of last year for the same period, but the DPH says these numbers are not a good indicator of the severity of the season.
The northeast section of the state — defined by the DPH as towns north of Boston to the New Hampshire border — saw the highest number of lab-confirmed cases from Oct. 6 to Nov. 30, at 77.
The flu virus can be spread by coughing and sneezing, and it can live outside the body on surfaces such as doorknobs or phones for a short period, according to the DPH.
To avoid getting sick, the department suggested, get a flu vaccine, wash hands often, cough or sneeze into tissues, clean shared surfaces, and avoid people who are sick with the flu. Visit www.mass.gov/influenza.Morgan Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.