The number of people experiencing coughs, sore throats, and more at hospital emergency departments across the county is rising, according to Cook County Department of Public Health data. And area medical experts say the flu virus causing these symptoms is more severe and presenting itself earlier than in years past. 

The recent uptick in flu cases, which county health officials are calling a pandemic, has prompted many area hospitals to put in place stricter visitor restrictions. 

According to health department data, more than 50 people in Cook County were hospitalized in an intensive care unit (ICU) after positively testing for influenza in the first week of January 2018 — a 300 percent-plus increase over the same period in 2016. 

From Dec. 16, 2017 to Jan. 6, 3 percent of those who visited the emergency rooms of suburban Cook County hospitals were Forest Park residents. Before December, there were few, if any, flu cases among residents in the village, according to county health data. 

Officials at three nearby hospitals — West Suburban Medical Center, Rush Oak Park Hospital and Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood — confirmed that their facilities are experiencing an increase in the number of patients experiencing flu-related symptoms. 

West Suburban, for instance, treated 66 flu patients in December and 31 flu patients so far this month (as of Jan. 12). Dr. Jorge Parada, medical director of Loyola’s infection prevention and control program, said Loyola has tested more than 1,200 patients with flu-like symptoms, such as coughing, headaches and fever — 357 of whom had a lab-confirmed case of influenza. 

“During the Christmas week the number of seasonal flu cases at Loyola increased to a four-year high of 179 confirmed cases in a single week and the surge may not be over,” Parada said in a statement released earlier this month. 

On Dec. 27, the Illinois Department of Public Health recommended that hospitals implement more restrictive protocols for patients that include prohibiting visitors under 18 years old from areas in the hospital other than the emergency room, and limiting the number of visitors to two people at any one time. 

In December, all three area hospitals implemented flu-season restrictions consistent with the state’s recommendations. 

In a recent statement, county health officials recommended that those experiencing flu-related symptoms “be responsible and stay home.” 

Parada echoed that recommendation, advising area residents to get flu shots, and to thoroughly wash and/or sanitize their hands many times throughout the day. He also advised those who have been diagnosed with the flu to “rest, drink fluids and take over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen as needed.” 

He noted that the advice to flu patients to stay home is “for the protection of your community as you are highly contagious and will spread the illness to others.

“Your inconvenient bug may be a life-threatening illness to the very young, very old or chronically ill people that you encounter,” Parada said. 

For those who “vomit or eliminate blood, become disoriented or suffer extreme fatigue,” he added, “call your doctor or go to an immediate care center.”