When Jenny Costanzo caught the flu bug earlier this month, she figured she could tough it out without even taking a sick day, much less heading to the hospital. She was half right.
"I wasn't feeling well ... and figured I'd just medicate myself and go to work -- but my lunch didn't agree with me," said Costanzo, 25, whose queasiness got the better of her recently at her Irvine workplace.
But after a bit of bed rest, green tea and cough syrup, Costanzo was back on her feet. That same prescription is what county health officials are urging anyone with muscle aches and a mild fever to use, as throngs of flu sufferers who don't need expert medical care descend on emergency rooms across Orange County, straining limited resources.
"You're not really going to gain anything by going to the emergency room," said Dr. Samuel J. Stratton, medical director of Orange County Emergency Medical Services.
While people with severe symptoms -- confusion, trouble breathing or fevers higher than 102 degrees -- should consider hospital care, taking it easy usually does the trick.
For most cases, doctors can only provide limited relief, unless the flu is treated in the first 48 hours, in which case an antiviral drug such as Tamiflu might help.
Local experts say an unusually late flu season is at hand, and that cases are being reported over a much shorter period of time than normal.
"This one's hitting very rapidly, in a widespread manner. ... That obviously stresses the health care system," Stratton said.
An Orange County child died from flu-related causes in January, county health officials said. It was the first flu-related pediatric death in California for the year.
One gauge of the abundance of flu cases is what hospitals deem "saturation" -- the point at which waiting rooms and beds are full. So far this month, Orange County's two dozen emergency rooms have reached saturation for a total of 1,663 hours. That's up from 1,058 hours of saturation in all of February 2007.
At Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, the hospital set an all-time record for emergency room visits this month, a milestone that spokeswoman Tiffany Long attributed to patients with flu-like symptoms.
Many of the cases don't technically involve the flu, but respiratory infections that mirror it. At Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, 750 patients have been admitted with flu-like symptoms this month, and of those who were tested, 87 were actually suffering from influenza.
But even for definitive flu cases, "It's about two to three times higher than the norm," said Kelsey Martinez, a Mission Hospital spokeswoman.
Since the affliction must be treated quickly to significantly ease headaches, muscle pain and other symptoms, the request for sufferers to let the ailment run its course can sometimes backfire, said Dr. Ramon Johnson of Mission Hospital.
"Many patients are trying to stay home, and they aren't getting better, so they come in here, and then it's too late," Johnson said, adding that this is the busiest flu season in the past five years.
Hospitals aren't the only places where the uptick in flu cases has been visible. At least one Orange County school district has reported a noticeable rise in absences because of flu and flu-like symptoms.
The 11-campus Fountain Valley School District has observed at least a 10 percent increase in absences among children and teachers since mid-January, said Sandy Monlon, a district nurse.
"It's gone up and down, but it's been pretty noticeable for the past month," Monlon said.
Dr. James Pierog, medical director at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, noted that with the flu season expected to run through May, it's not too late to get a flu shot.
But at this point, the best preventive measure might be halting the spread of germs.
If you're ill, Pierog said, you should stay home, cover your mouth when coughing and "wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands."
Staff writers Jorge Barrientos and Scott Martindale contributed to this report.