UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2018):

Hospitals in East Tennessee are placing "unprecedented" restrictions on visitors to protect patients from a widespread outbreak of the flu across Tennessee and the U.S.

Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System in the Tri-Cities area said they are further restricting visitors to protect patients at their hospitals. This includes:

  • Anyone who has flu-like symptoms including a cough, sore throat, fever, chills, runny nose, body aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • People under the age of 18.
  • Any groups larger than 2 adults.

MSHA Director of Infection Prevention Jamie Swift says this level of restrictions is unprecedented, but necessary because of the high level of severe illness spreading around the country.

So far, five people are reported to have died because of the flu this season in Tennessee. Health officials said the latest victim was an elderly person in the Tri-Cities. Elderly people are at a higher risk of getting the flu, along with children.

The Tennessee Department of Health has reported two child flu deaths in East Tennessee, one child flu death in Middle Tennessee, and the flu-related death of a pregnant woman in Middle Tennessee.

Some hospitals elsewhere in East Tennessee such as in Knoxville placed similar, but lighter restrictions as the flu began to spread across Tennessee back in December. Rules such as preventing children or people showing symptoms of illness from visiting patients are typical this time of year.

"These are restrictions we usually take every year during peak flu season. This is the first time since around 2009 that we've seen flu come this early," said Dr. Mark Rasnake, an infection disease physician at UT Medical Center. "We've decided to implement restrictions for all hospital visitors. Anyone with illness and any children under 12 now that we've seen substantial amounts of flu in the community."

MORE: Flu cases on the rise in East Tennessee and Kentucky

Cronley said the uptick in cases of the flu is not surprising or out of the ordinary. The flu season extends from October through March. The season peaked slightly earlier compared to the typical peaks in late January and February.

UT Medical Center in Knoxville.

Rasnake said the reason children through age 11 are problematic is it can be difficult to tell if they have the flu.

"The younger the children, the more likely they are to have active flu and be shedding virus. And they may not have the classic symptoms we see in an older child or an adult," said Rasnake.

"We always recommend that if you feel like you're getting sick, stay home," said Connie Cronley, an epidemiology reporting nurse with the Knox County Health Department.

"People are spending a lot of time together during the holidays, close. Get a flu shot. That's going to be your best protection. Wash your hands frequently. If you don't have a tissue, cough into your sleeve instead of your hands. Always wash your hands after any coughing or sneezing."

Both Rasnake and Conley said the flu shot is vital.

Flu shot syringe

"Even if it [a flu shot] doesn't stop you from getting the flu, it still may prevent you from getting severe influenza or ending up in the hospital," said Rasnake.

If possible, you should not visit a loved one who is especially vulnerable to the flu if you have symptoms.

"I know it's kind of tough to make that decision, but maybe postpone your visit. Especially with people who are hospitalized, undergoing cancer treatments, or things like that," said Rasnake.

Conley said another common contributor to the spread of flu is a failure to thoroughly wash your hands.

Knox County Health Department entrance.

"You need to scrub your hands with soap for 20 seconds. Sometimes, people will quickly wash their hands and miss a lot of the places that can carry germs," said Conley.

A common trick to ensure you have thoroughly washed your hands is to sing the entire alphabet song in your head while you lather up.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these tips to stop the spread of germs:

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
  • If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine).
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

You can find the CDC's weekly flu activity map at this link.