Flu numbers

2009-2010 (Sept. 1-June 26)49deaths1,091hospitalizations2010-2011 (Oct 3-July 2)20 deaths996hospitalizations2011-2012 (Oct. 2-July 7)1death113hospitalizations2012 (Sept. 30-Dec. 29)15deaths862hospitalizationsS.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control

A self-described health nut, Jena Jones of Mount Pleasant knew something was wrong Wednesday as she struggled hard for the energy to get around.

Cold vs. flu vs. pneumonia

Cold: Sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion, watery eyes and sneezing are the most common symptoms. Some people may also experience a cough, mild fatigue and body aches. Colds are caused by any of hundreds of different viruses.Flu: The most common symptoms are a fever that is often high and lasts 3 to 4 days, headache, body aches, severe fatigue lasting up to 3 weeks and cough (usually dry). Some people also may experience a runny nose, congestion or sore throat. A virus causes the flu.Pneumonia: Symptoms are a persistent dry or productive cough, fever and chills, difficulty breathing, chest pain and headache. A bacteria or a virus can cause pneumonia.S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control

“I couldn’t even move,” she said. “Even going upstairs, I was getting out of breath.”

Her bones felt heavy and she ached all over. It seemed like 10 pounds of weight was on her lungs. Jones, who runs 2 to 3 miles daily, went to a doctor that night and was told she had the flu.

“It’s been pretty brutal,” she said. “I have never had the flu, period.”

Jones, 40, got the flu vaccination at the end of November. It was required by her employer, Roper St. Francis Healthcare, where she works in marketing.

Along with the flu, she is struggling with a first-time case of pleurisy, a lung illness that developed at the same time. She planned to return to the doctor for further treatment.

“The pleurisy is really a concern. My lungs are in really bad shape right now,” she said.

Jones is not alone in her suffering.

Widespread influenza is being reported as visits to doctor offices, hospitalizations and deaths rise well above levels seen last year.

Flu deaths

Roper St. Francis Healthcare has been seeing a “heavy number” of confirmed and suspected cases of influenza at its five emergency departments, said spokeswoman Kim Keelor.

Two people were admitted to its hospitals for flu complications in November, and 26 influenza patients were hospitalized in December. In 2011, no one was admitted for the flu in the same time period, she said.

Statewide, more than 32,000 people who received the rapid flu test in the past three months tested positive, compared with fewer than 300 for the same time last year. Charleston County led the state with 767 positive rapid flu tests, followed by Dorchester County with 228 positives and Berkeley County with 82.

Fifteen people in the state have died because of flu-related complications, and hundreds were hospitalized between Sept. 30 to Dec. 29. Twelve of the flu fatalities were at least 65 years old. Two deaths happened in people ranging in age from 50 to 64. A child no more than 4 years old succumbed to flu-related illness, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control said in its latest flu report.

The child, in Barnwell County, was the first flu-related fatality in the state when DHEC reported it in late November. Where the other deaths happened was not reported. DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said county-by-county numbers are not typically made available.

The agency focuses on the first flu death of the season to let people know that the flu is here so appropriate preventive measures can be taken, he said.

The county where the patients were hospitalized is not provided because DHEC said it is more concerned with getting the word out about the statewide presence of flu and the importance of vaccination.

The flu vaccine, made of killed virus, is created based on expert opinion about which viruses are most likely to circulate in a given season, said Dr. Michael Schmidt, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“They have to guess right and they have to hope that the flu doesn’t change,” he said.

Schmidt said county-by-county DHEC numbers for flu deaths and hospitalizations would be of value to the public and the medical profession.

“The issue is similar in my view to a tornado warning, where conditions are present for a potentially devastating outcome. It should alert the public that, like a tornado warning, they should monitor their health,” he said.

In addition to deaths reported by DHEC, a 73-year-old James Island woman died at home last Sunday of complications from influenza after falling sick the day before, the Charleston County Coroner’s Office reported.

“It’s sort of unpredictable how bodies respond to viruses. Otherwise healthy people can get the flu and die,” said Coroner Rae Wooten.

The woman was “relatively healthy,” Wooten said.

Death from flu complications can involve any number of underlying medical problems, such as a weakened immune system, diabetes and heart disease, she said.

“It’s very individual for each person who is afflicted with the virus,” she said.

People who think they have flu symptoms should take care of themselves.

“Go to a doctor and see what you need in terms of an individual health plan,” she said.

The flu vaccine

The flu shot is up to 90 percent effective in preventing the illness in healthy young adults. But it can take six to eight weeks for the vaccine to provide maximum protection. In the meantime, the flu shot can lessen the effects of influenza, according to DHEC.

In the past three months, South Carolina has had more than 800 hospitalizations for flu-related complications. They include 421 people at least 65 years old; 144 patients between the ages of 50 and 64; 115 state residents between 18 and 49; 50 youngsters between the ages of 5 and 17; and 132 toddlers up to 4 years old, according to DHEC.

Virologists and epidemiologists are considering a new hypothesis that flu is more prevalent during dry weather, said Schmidt, the MUSC professor.

“The virus may remain aloft for a longer period of time than in the spring and fall when conditions are moister,” he said.

For example, wet Washington state has had minimal flu cases, he said.

When it comes to prevention, it is important to remember that everything in the environment can have the flu virus on it. Flu can be picked up by touching contaminated objects, such as paper money, where the virus can live for as long as two weeks, Schmidt said.

Protect yourself through vaccination, hand-washing and good dietary and health habits.

“And if you think you have the flu, stay home, drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest and consult with your health care provider,” he said.

In response to the flu outbreak, Roper St. Francis Health Care is placing signs throughout its hospitals advising that people with a fever or cough not visit patients. Healthy visitors are being asked to wash their hands after arriving and before leaving.

“It is a precaution to protect our patients as the flu season grows in intensity,” Keelor said.

Amy Zeigler, spokeswoman for Crisis Ministries, said she gets a flu shot yearly to protect her health, and because she works with homeless people who may have weakened immune systems.

“I haven’t had the flu. To me, (vaccination) seems like it works,” she said. “I’m a big hand washer. I wash my hands a lot.”

Charlene Gunnels, spokeswoman for The Citadel, said she had a bad cold for two weeks in December, but it was not the flu. She has been thinking about getting a flu shot this year because the season has begun early and hit harder than last year.

“I’ve heard lots of people complaining that they think they have the flu,” she said.

Shirley Hughes, 62, wore a surgical mask while waiting to see a doctor at Franklin C. Fetter Family Health Center on Nassau Street. She had been ill for three weeks with symptoms including sinus pain, chest congestion and a bad cough.

“It could be the flu, but I don’t know. One year I had the flu so bad I thought I was going to die,” she said.