LISTEN: Respiratory viruses are continuing to send adults and children to the emergency room this flu season. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports on the early spike in cases. 

A calendar with a red thumbtack marking the date to get a flu shot

Hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen at this time of year in a decade, demonstrating the significantly earlier flu season we are experiencing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

Credit: Georgia Coastal Health District

It's flu season. COVID-19 continues to circulate, and an early spike in respiratory syncytial virus or RSV cases is stressing some hospitals nationwide.

"Hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen at this time of year in a decade, demonstrating the significantly earlier flu season we are experiencing," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a recent press briefing.

Masking over the past two years slowed the spread of respiratory illnesses like influenza and RSV, which is a highly contagious common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.

Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than 1 year of age in the United States.

Since October, there have been 30 Georgians who died of influenza, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The state saw 31 deaths total during last year's flu season.

The young and old are typically most at risk (click the link to read about recognizing symptoms in seniors).

The CDC reports 21 pediatric deaths nationwide since October, which is not uncommon, Dr. Mitch Rodriguez, a neonatologist and business development director at Atrium Health Navicent Beverly Knight Olson Children's Hospital in Macon, said.

"On an annual basis, we'll have anywhere between 130 to 1,200 pediatric patients that die throughout the nation related to flu-like illnesses," he said.

During the 2019-2020 flu season, nearly 200 children died of influenza.

But an annual flu shot and the latest COVID booster can prevent serious illness, Rodriguez said, noting that less than 20% of pediatric patients between six months and 16 years were vaccinated against this year's flu strains as of last month.

The CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine annually.

As a result of high flu rates around the country, medications for treating fever and flu, especially in children, have been in short supply in some areas.

Sales of pediatric internal analgesics, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, were up more than 26% in October compared to last year, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

The maker of Children's Tylenol and Children's Motrin, Johnson & Johnson, said there isn't a nationwide shortage, just a surge in demand.

And when it comes to reported shortages of antibiotics, Rodriguez said he wants to remind folks that influenza is viral and viruses are not treated with antibiotics.

"It does not require antibiotic and therapeutic intervention unless the patient's course gets complicated and creates the potential for pneumonia or sinusitis," Rodriguez said. "But most flu cases are viral in nature, so no antibiotic treatment is necessary for those patients."

That means not everyone needs to go to the hospital, he said. 

But people with co-morbidities and the very young are at risk for hospitalization related to the flu or RSV, Rodriguez said.

"And that becomes really the bigger concern, that we have is essentially finding pediatric intensive care beds in the state for those patients that require care," he said, adding that anyone with trouble breathing or severe dehydration should head to an emergency room.