By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Cases of high fever, cough and sore throat have shown up at the Big Sky Medical Center in droves this flu season, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s flu season is the most widespread since officials began keeping track 13 years ago.

“It’s really the worst flu season I can remember since the swine flu eight years ago,” said Dr. Philip Hess, who has been a physician at BSMC since its inception in 2015. While not in effect in Big Sky, Bozeman Health has restricted visitors to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman due to the flu.

Influenza is a contagious respiratory disease that can cause mild to severe illness. It is caused by the influenza virus, which constantly evolves and leads to the emergence of new strains every year. Because of this mutation, Hess said, “It’s always hard to tell how hard flu season is going to be. Depending on the mutation, it can be more or less contagious, or more or less severe.

“It’s an interesting little crafty critter, that flu virus,” he added.

Specialists study the flu virus on a global scale and predict which strains will cause future illness. Based on this information, they can develop vaccines likely to develop antibodies for potentially problematic strains. Even if the vaccine does not fully prevent illness, it often shortens the duration of the sickness.

With Big Sky being a destination location, Hess said the community probably gets exposed to a variety of flu strains. “We’re probably getting more visitors from other parts of the country this year because of snow,” he said, however he wasn’t able to point to tourism as a reason for disease. “Some years [the virus] is more contagious so when it gets into a small community, it spreads.”

According to the CDC, this year the most predominant strain of influenza is H3N2, which is known to cause some of the worst outbreaks of illness.

While the majority of people sick with the flu are able to recover in less than two weeks, complications can develop that require hospitalization and could result in death.

Hess said a variety of individuals are susceptible to influenza, but those at risk of developing complications include children less than 2 years old, those over the age of 65, and individuals with heart or lung conditions or a compromised immune system.

“For most of the rest of us, flu is a sort of miserable thing … but it’s not scary,” he said. “Know that if you or your family members are high risk, hurry in to seek care.” There are some medications that may be prescribed to those most at risk of complication that must be taken early in the illness in order to be most effective, he added.

As reported by the Washington Post, in a briefing to reporters on Jan. 12, the director of CDC’s influenza division Daniel Jernigan said flu activity has probably peaked, however illness will continue into the near future. “Even if we have hit the top of the curve, it still means there’s lots more flu to go. If we look at similar seasons, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of influenza to go.”