Hamiltonians may get a gift they didn’t ask for this Christmas — the flu. Public Health Services is reporting flu season has started earlier than normal this year and they expect flu cases to peak over the holiday season.

"Usually we see more cases during January and February, but now we’re seeing it in November and December," Dr. Hamidah Meghani, Hamilton’s Associate Medical Officer of Health, told CBC Hamilton.

'If you are sick, we really encourage you to stay at home instead of going out and passing it off to the next person.' —Hamidah Meghani, Hamilton Associate Medical Officer of Health

"We’re not exactly sure why, but the number of admissions into emergency rooms is not higher, but earlier for some reason."

The first laboratory-reported case came on Nov. 9. Since then 67 confirmed cases have been reported in the Hamilton region.

These numbers represent severe cases of the flu that land people in hospital, where they get tested for influenza. They don’t include the more common cases of individuals who get sick and stay home to rest, Meghani said.

"There is very likely a lot more people who have the flu," she said.

Fighting the flu

Over the course of a normal flu season, one in 10 adults and one in three children will come down with the flu, according to Health Canada.

Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory disease that strikes as many as eight million people in flu season, usually between October and April.

While flu and cold symptoms can be similar, influenza is much more serious because it drastically reduces the body's ability to fight off other infections. There are two main kinds of flu viruses: influenza A, which can make you really sick, and B, which is usually milder.

Flu by the numbers

3 million to 7.5 million: Estimated number of Canadians who become infected with the influenza virus each year.

2,000 to 8,000: The approximate number of Canadians who die of influenza or its complications each year in Canada, according to Health Canada.

300: The average number of deaths in Statistics Canada's "deaths and mortality" table directly attributed to influenza annually between 2000 and 2008.

6-10: Typical number of days it takes people to get over the flu. Symptoms include fever, headache, coughing, loss of appetite, muscle aches, fatigue, and sometimes stomach ache and diarrhea.

3: The number of pandemics (worldwide epidemics) of influenza in the 1900s. They occurred the influenza seasons of 1918-1919, 1957-1958 and 1968-1969.

A cold and the flu share some of the same symptoms. But even a bad cold is pretty mild, compared to a bout with the flu.

No pill or herb will get rid of either — each is caused by viruses and antibiotics, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines are useless against them. You can take things that might ease your symptoms, but there is no cure. Your illness will have to run its course.

A cold usually comes on gradually — over the course of a day or two. Generally, it leaves you feeling tired, sneezing, coughing and plagued by a running nose. You often don't have a fever, but when you do, it's only slightly higher than normal.

Flu, on the other hand, comes on suddenly and hits hard. You will feel weak and tired and you could run a fever as high as 40 C. Your muscles and joints will probably ache, you will feel chilled and could have a severe headache and sore throat. Getting off the couch or out of bed will be a chore. The fever may last three to five days, but you could feel weak and tired for two to three weeks.

Because flu viruses are unstable, an immune system exposed by infection or vaccine one year wouldn't recognize it was the same virus the following year.

If you want to avoid getting sick during the holidays, Public Health recommends getting vaccinated as the surest way to avoid infection. Since the flu season can last well into springtime, Meghani said it’s never too late to get innoculated.

So far, public health has seen four strains of flu circulating in the area. Three of these strains, including the most common, are covered by this year's vaccine.

Along with the vaccine, it’s important to take other precautions to avoid getting and spreading the flu, Meghani said. Proper and frequent hand washing can help prevent you from getting sick, but if you do catch something, it’s just as important to stay home and rest, she said.

"If you are sick, we really encourage you to stay at home instead of going out and passing it off to the next person," she said.

"Definitely don’t go to see friends in the hospital or people in long-term care, because those are the people most vulnerable to having severe consequences from the flu, or even death."

The following chart illustrates the major differences between cold and flu symptoms:

Signs & symptoms Cold Flu 
Fever Occasional Often above 38.5 C for 2-4 days
Headache Frequent, but not severe Prominent and often severe
Aches/pains Slight Often severe
Fatigue/weakness Mild Can last 2-3 weeks
Extreme exhaustion Never Early and prominent
Stuffy nose Common Occasional
Sore throat Common Occasional
Cough Hacking Can be severe
Chest discomfort Mild to moderate Common, can become severe
Onset Gradual (develops over a day or two) Sudden (within a few hours)
Cause 200 strains of cold virus 3 strains of influenza virus