Although most children grow up hearing that they'll catch the flu if they play in the snow without a scarf, weather has very little to do with which regions get more flu, doctors say.
"It's actually not that predicable," said Dr. Jon Abramson, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina.
Mississippi has had the most reported cases of influenza-like illness in the United States so far this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though Mississippi had an average temperature of 53.3 degrees this month, it is the only state in the country with a flu-like activity level of "high." Louisiana and Alabama are right behind it with moderate activity levels. Most other states -- with colder climates -- have had lower levels.
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Abramson said the flu season tends to start in October and last through April, mostly coinciding with the school year rather than the temperature. He said studies have shown that the flu spreads mostly from school-age children, who often have poorer hygiene and catch the virus because they are in close contact with one another. Then, they pass it along to adults.
Weather becomes a contributing factor mostly because it forces children indoors, where they mix together and spread germs, said Allison Aiello, a professor and epidemiologist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health.
Scarves, hats and gloves are useless if you come in contact with someone with the flu and either breath in their virus or touch a surface with the virus and touch your mouth, Aiello said.
"You can tell you mom it's OK for you to go outside with no hat on," she laughed, adding that even her own relatives remind her to put on a hat to avoid getting the flu. She said weather can perhaps make people more susceptible, but it can't give them the virus.
Since Sept. 30, about 2,400 influenza cases have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 28 cases of H1N1. Despite its tropical temperatures, even Hawaii has reported flu cases this season.
Abramson said his North Carolina hospital has already had 25 influenza cases this season. In contrast, by the same time last year, the same hospital didn't have a single case.
"This is the South. It's fairly warm, so you wouldn't expect it this early," he said. "It doesn't seem to behave exactly by the coldness."
The flu can spread any time of year, Abramson said, citing this summer's swine flu outbreak. The H3N2V strain jumped from 29 to 145 cases in less than a week in August of this year, with most of them in Indiana and Ohio.
The best way for families to protect themselves is to encourage hand-washing and get vaccinated.
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- Infectious Diseases
- Public Health