The influenza virus is "widespread" in Pennsylvania, and this year's strain is especially dangerous for the elderly, according to the state Department of Health.

Since the beginning of October, 7,181 confirmed cases of flu were reported in Pennsylvania, including 103 in Bradford County.

"We have seen some cases of it," said a spokesperson for Memorial Hospital in Towanda.

When asked if Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre has had any flu cases this season, clinical coordinator Sharon Cutler said, "We have - not to the extent of some other facilities, but yes."

In addition, the department noted that there were 10 in Sullivan County, 42 in Tioga County, 46 in Lackawanna County, 222 in Luzerne, 34 in Wyoming, 19 in Wayne, 28 in Susquehanna, 12 in Pike and 60 in Monroe, according to the department. Four flu-related deaths have been reported this season.

Laboratory-confirmed cases represent only a fraction of the population affected by the flu. Last season, 19,000 confirmed cases were reported to the state.

This year's strain, H3N2, is a strong flu, but people can diminish the risk of falling ill by getting a flu shot, said Joseph C. Koval, M.D., medical director for clinical performance at Geisinger CMC.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention creates flu vaccines with three strains its scientists deem most likely to spread, and this year's vaccine covers H3N2, Dr. Koval said.

Although the flu is already widespread, "It is not too late to get the flu vaccine," Dr. Koval said. The flu virus peaks in mid-to-late January and February. The vaccine will take effect after about 10 to 14 days, he said.

Flu symptoms include body aches, fever over 100 degrees, dry cough and/or sore throat, fatigue and nasal congestion. Even if people exhibit these symptoms, the only way to know for sure is by having lab work done, Dr. Koval said.

The elderly are extremely susceptible to the flu, he said. The elderly are "easily stressed, often malnourished, but more importantly, they have comorbid illnesses." These illnesses include chronic lung, kidney, liver and heart diseases, he said.

"They (the elderly) are susceptible to not only getting the flu in the first place, but developing the bad complications from the flu," Dr. Koval said.

Children are also at risk, because their immune systems are not as well developed as adults, he said.

Between 600,000 and 1.3 million Pennsylvanians get the flu each year, according to the department.. The CDC estimates between 180 and 2,000 Pennsylvanians die from flu complications each year.

To sidestep the flu, avoid crowds and sick people, wash hands frequently (hand sanitizer is a good substitute), and cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, Dr. Koval said.

The flu vaccine is a key prevention tool, but people with chronic illnesses, allergies, or prior bad experiences with the flu vaccine should contact their physicians before getting the shot, he said.

Contact the writer: shazen@timesshamrock.com.

Additional reporting by The Daily Review staff writer Eric Hrin.