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MAP: Which States Have the Most Flu Cases So Far?

Though not yet into the icy grip of the cold season, the flu has already taken hold of the nation's focus.

Flu season kicks off in mid-fall, stretching through the winter and peaking in January. A respiratory illness, the flu spreads from person to person, mostly through coughs, sneezes and even general talking. It is possible to contract the flu by touching a surface infected with the flu virus then transmitting it to your mouth, nose or eyes.

As a result, Darlete Foote, public affairs specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests that everyone over the age of six months receive an annual flu vaccine. Up to 20 percent of the population will be impacted by the flu each year.

Foote said that while flu activity is currently slow, there are early signs that activity is increasing.

"Flu activity is expected to increase in the coming weeks," she said.

According to the CDC, eight states and Puerto Rico have recorded local flu activity as of Oct. 25. Alaska is the only state so far to record regional influenza. With eight states and the District of Columbia still having seen no influenza activity, the majority of the U.S. is still in a "sporadic" phase.

Some studies link the stir of flu activity with a drop in humidity, circulating at higher levels during cold weather. Described in a 2010 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, flu particles were found to transmit easier as drier conditions create an easier habitat for particles to remain airborne longer.

Greater airborne transmission is linked to more temperate regions as seasonal changes bring on more influenza cases.

Other studies suggest that while the colder season contributes to more people staying indoors, compacted into smaller areas where the spreading of illness thrives.

Still, the CDC recommends a daily change in habits as flu season develops.

1. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
2. Stay home when you are sick.
3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
4. Wash your hands often.
5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Researchers out of the United Kingdom are incorporating Google searches as a way to "nowcast" flu activity.

The 2014 study, completed by researchers from the Warwick Business School, demonstrates that Google search data can indeed be used to significantly improve estimates of the current number of cases of flu, reducing the errors seen in a model using CDC data alone by up to 52.7 percent.

The researchers, Tobias Preis and Suzy Moat, argue that Google Flu Trends provides a classic example of how big data models must adapt across time to reflect changes in people's behavior.

Using internet search tools has the power to deliver faster, current spread updates as well due to the immediacy of the results.

"Official reports of flu levels can be delayed by at least a week, as the process of collecting data from doctors on the number of patients they have seen can be rather time consuming," said Moat.

By using live search results, health care professionals may be able to gauge the spread of the flu faster without waiting for the paper trail. The researchers admit that there are some flaws; however, they argue their model can eliminate outliers and increase in searches that do not correlate with increases in reported flu cases.

"Our results show that public health professionals can indeed use data on the number of Google searches for flu-related symptoms to improve their estimates of how many people have the flu right now," Preis said, "as long as their analysis takes simple precautions to allow for the fact that human behavior can change across time."