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The flu bug, which has been nibbling at Utah students, likely will send them crawling home in droves next week.

Utah Department of Health officials are predicting a widespread influenza outbreak by Monday, which means that Utah schools can expect a high absentee rate.Influenza type-A (H3N2) arrived in the state earlier than usual this year and immediately combined forces with parainfluenza (types 1 and 2).

Utahns knew they were sick but weren't sure what the culprit was - and if they were in any way protected from it.

If you've had a flu shot, there's a 60 percent to 70 percent chance that you are. State epidemiologist Craig Nichols said the vaccine protects people against A-Taiwan, A-Shanghi and B-Yamagaga.

"The influenza type-A virus is most closely related to A-Shanghi," Nichols said. "So if you've had a flu shot, you're probably protected - or at least will have a more mild case because of the modification by the vaccine."

Nichols said prescription drugs also are available to combat influenza type-A. But neither the drugs nor the vaccine is effective against the co-circulating parainfluenza.

So how do you know what's making you sick?

"Sudden onset is the first symptom of the flu. Influenza is different from colds and other illnesses that come on gradually, where you start to feel tired and have a runny nose," Nichols said. "With influenza you immediately feel ill. People can almost tell you where they were and what they were doing.

"They will say, `I just returned from lunch, had been sitting at my desk for 15 minutes and the headache hit. I started getting fever, chills, muscle aches.' " The cough that follows a couple of days later can be prolonged and very irritating.

"But the infected person is most communicable the first two days of illness," Nichols said. "So people should stay home the days they have a fever."

The health department executive said a common occurrence during outbreaks is increased fatalities from pneumonia, the most serious complication of influenza. Nursing homes are hit especially hard during flu outbreaks.

Nichols said high-risk people - the elderly and sufferers of respiratory or circulatory disease - should contact their physicians if they haven't been vaccinated or if they feel the flu coming on.

The outbreak may last six to eight weeks. That is, unless a new strain of influenza makes it way to Utah. Then Utahns could be sick longer.