This year's flu season is off to a mild start locally, according to the Union County Health Department.

This year's flu season is off to a mild start locally, according to the Union County Health Department.

The department has had just two reports of influenza-related hospitalizations, both in older adults. Last year, flu sent 10 Union County residents to the hospital.

Don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet, though. The Ohio Department of Health reports that flu activity is now widespread overall, meaning flu-like illness are increasing in more than half the regions of the state.

Jennifer Thrush, public information officer for the Union County Health Department, said it's hard to pinpoint the exact number of flu cases because only three types of data must be reported to public health officials: a new or novel strain of flu; pediatric deaths from influenza; and influenza-associated hospitalizations.

"Numbers of flu cases are not reportable. We are seeing influenza-like illness in Union County; however, we don't have any numbers," she said.

Ohio is one of 35 states reporting widespread flu activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Widespread indicates we are seeing flu activity all over the state and not just localized areas. The two lower levels of activity are sporadic and regional," Thrush said.

Flu season starts in October and usually runs through spring. To date, the state health department has received reports of 833 influenza-related hospitalizations. The highest numbers of those are in northeast and east central Ohio, but activity in other parts of the state is quickly increasing. At this time last year, 1,922 hospitalizations had been reported.

Health officials encourage people who have not yet gotten a flu shot to get one as soon as possible. The CDC recommends annual flu vaccines for everyone six months and older.

"Because the flu virus is now widespread throughout Ohio, immunization is all the more essential," said state health department Director Dr. Ted Wymyslo. "Immunization is the safest and most effective way to fight the flu, so I encourage all Ohioans who have not already done so to get vaccinated today."

According to the health department, most of the flu circulating in Ohio is the H1N1 strain seen during the 2009 season. It mostly affects young and middle-aged adults. H1N1 is one of the flu strains included in this year's vaccine.

Fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue are symptoms of influenza. Most people recover without complications, but a small number can become severely ill and end up with pneumonia or other severe illness. In rare cases, the flu can be fatal.

Vaccines are not the only way to protect against flu. The state health department recommends frequent hand-washing or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and covering coughs and sneezes with tissues or your elbow. Those who have the flu should stay home until they are fever-free for 24 hours.

Adult flu shots are available on a walk-in basis at the Union County Health Department from 8 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Cost is $25. Medicaid, Medicare and some private insurance are accepted. Children's flu shots are available by appointment for $10. For more information, call 937-642-2053.