Though we've certainly had harsher years, this year's flu season is taking its toll. The CDC, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tracks reported outbreaks around the U.S. each year, and its most recent weekly report ranks 10 out of 10 U.S. regions as "Elevated," with two confirmed pediatric deaths so far.
While the CDC is the most authoritative source around when it comes to viral epidemics, search giant Google has also been doing some cutting edge work tracking flu outbreaks since 2006. The search engine is doing it more indirectly than the CDC — which relies mostly on numbers coming from hospitals and clinics — but Google's method has advantages that the CDC cannot replicate: no entity is connected as intimately with as many people as Google. Every day, Google gets information from hundreds of millions of people via search keywords, and by cleverly analyzing searches about flu symptoms, analysts there can get a pretty good idea of how many people are sick in different regions.
It works: Google's results have been published in the prestigious and peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature. And unlike the CDC's numbers, which take time to collect and compile, Google's flu numbers are real-time, which can help health organization react more effectively. This might seem like a small detail, but it can be a question of life or death for vulnerable individuals.
So how sick have Google's users been this flu season? They've been pretty darn sick — and all over the country. As of Jan. 5 2014, this is what the data looks like:
As you can see on the map, flu activity in most states ranks as "high." You can get an up-to-date version of the data here.
There are also other crowd-sourced ways to track the flu. One good example is Flu Near You, a project run by Healthmap of Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Participants are asked to fill a short weekly survey, and this helps map outbreaks and learn about how the virus propagates.
While it's great to have such sophisticated sources of information about flu outbreaks on the national and state level, you also need to know what you can do to get through this intense flu season. What are some resources?
The first thing is to make sure you are familiar with the symptoms of the flu. Familiarize yourself with the list (and you can then take this flu quiz by the CDC to test your knowledge). If you want to dig deeper, this primer on the influenza virus is excellent.
Once you know how to spot the virus, in yourself and in others, you need strategies to avoid catching it, especially if you are a vulnerable person or you might transmit it to someone who is (seniors, infants, people with severe health problems, etc.).
The most effective way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated (Read: The truth about getting the flu shot). The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services runs the website Flu.gov, which provides a tool to find places near you that have the flu vaccine.
Apart from the vaccine, other preventative measures include:
Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy food.
Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.
The Flu F.A.C.T.S. iPhone app, which both helps you track outbreaks and gives you prevention tips and email alerts.
The CDC's FluView mobile app, to keep track of outbreaks across the country.
The CDC's Influenza App for Clinicians and Health Care Professionals (for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, with Android support coming).
And on the lighter side, there's a Facebook app called "Help, My Friend Gave Me the Flu" that tries to pinpoint which of your friends gave you the flu by scanning through their public messages to try to identify who was sick when. What will they come up with next?
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