Holy crap, this year's flu season is shaping up to be downright terrifyingS

The CDC has just released its latest update on influenza activity in the United States, and the picture it paints is not pretty. First things first: GET VACCINATED. You're over six months old? Get vaccinated. Someone you interact with on a regular basis is at high risk of flu complications (i.e. young, old, pregnant, immunocompromised, etc.)? Get vaccinated. This year's virus has arrived early, it's arrived with a vengeance, and it has health officials across the country bracing themselves for what could be the worst flu season in a decade. It is not — we repeat: not — fucking around.

Flu: What Is It?
Influenza is an infectious, airborne RNA-virus that tends to spread expeditiously during yearly outbreaks, commonly dubbed "flu season". It turns you into a coughing, sneezing, aching, squirting, energy-sapped shiver-mobile, and it's basically the worst.

When Is Flu Season?
Flu season hits during winter, which means it actually occurs twice every year (once in the Northern Hemisphere and again in the Southern). According to the CDC, flu season in the Northern Hemisphere generally runs from October through May, ramping up in late January and peaking by around February.

Holy crap, this year's flu season is shaping up to be downright terrifyingS

But this year, the disease has punched in ahead of schedule. "It's about five weeks ahead of the average flu season," said Lyn Finelli, who monitors influenza for the CDC. "We haven't seen such an early season since 2003 to 2004." What's so bad about this year's flu season?

A Few Things
To reiterate: this year's season rang early. In a way, this shit kind of snuck up on us. In the CDC's first report of the season, it indicated that flu activity was low, which may have lulled people into a false sense of security and kept them from lining up for their seasonal flu vaccinations. Generally speaking, the sooner you get vaccinated the better. When a flu season hits earlier than usual, it stands to reason that it will also hit harder by catching unvaccinated populations flat-footed.

And That's Exactly What's Happening
This year's flu season is accelerating, and its peak is nowhere in sight. According to figures just released by the CDC, at least 47 states are reporting widespread flu outbreaks, over 2,250 people have been hospitalized, and 21 children have died.

The CDC's outpatient surveillance estimates indicate that 4.3% of Americans are reporting flu-like symptoms during doctor visits. That's almost double the 2.2% national baseline, and well above the 2.3% peak of last year's flu season.

But the CDC's Stats Are Only So Current
According to Google's Flu Trends — which, by monitoring search terms, can detect outbreaks nearly two weeks ahead of CDC reports — things are even worse than the CDC's data would indicate. Slate's Will Oremus provides a tidy analysis of Flu Trend's figures:

Holy crap, this year's flu season is shaping up to be downright terrifying

Flu Trends is painting a foreboding picture. On a global scale of green (minimal flu activity) to bright red (intense flu activity), the United States is the reddest country in the world [a screen shot of the map, taken at 10:55 ET, is included above]. Zoom in, and the red stretches are almost unbroken across the country's eastern two-thirds. (Hang in there, Connecticut!) Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Houston and Denver are among a slew of cities tagged with the "intense" rating.

But the really ominous chart is the one that shows the trend line for the nation as a whole [screen shot of the trend line, captured at 10:55 ET, included below]... if Google is right, the CDC's snapshot came just as the outbreak was gaining steam. Since mid-December, the trend line has rocketed past that of all previous years and now towers over that of the October 2009 H1N1 pinnacle, suggesting a CDC outpatient surveillance figure of an unprecedented 8.9 percent.

Holy crap, this year's flu season is shaping up to be downright terrifying

To recap: this year's flu strain came early, is accelerating at a rapid pace, and if Google has its numbers straight (and deep down, we all know how much we trust Google), we're heading for wild, uncharted, flu-ridden territory. Oh, and by the way:

This Year's Flu Strain Is Particularly Nasty
"The timing of the season is unpredictable," explains Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the CDC's influenza division. "But this particular strain circulating leads to more severe disease with more deaths and hospitalizations." The strain in question is variant of swine flu dubbed influenza A (H3N2). Historically speaking, flu seasons dominated by H3N2 variants are particularly nasty.

And This Year, True to Form, H3N2 Is Taking a Formidable Toll
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency Wednesday, citing 700 confirmed cases of the flu and four flu-related deaths so far in Boston, alone. That's a 900% increase over last year's 70 confirmed cases.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley announced Thursday that the deadly flu strain has reached epidemic levels across the five boroughs.

Reuters reports that in North Carolina, "flu activity has been recorded at the highest levels in a decade."

Meanwhile, supplies of children's flu medication are dwindling.

So what do we do?

GET VACCINATED
"Anyone who has not already been vaccinated should do so now," Bresee says. He continues:

And it's important to remember that people who have severe influenza illness, or who are at high risk of serious influenza-related complications, should get treated with influenza antiviral medications if they get flu symptoms regardless of whether or not they got vaccinated. Also, you don't need to wait for a positive laboratory test to start taking antivirals.

Maps and charts via Google; woman with flu symptoms via shutterstock