Local health officials are reminding residents to take precautions to avoid the spread of infection as Onslow County sees a hike in the reported number of influenza cases so far this year.

Influenza has been widespread across North Carolina this season and Onslow Memorial Hospital announced Thursday that it has seen a significant increase in reported flu cases since the start of the year.

From Jan. 1 through Feb. 19, the hospital’s emergency department tested 686 people for the flu and 158 of those tests were positive. During the same time period last year, only 5 of the 259 people tested were positive for the flu, according to hospital information.

Gloria Powers, manager of infection prevention at Onslow Memorial Hospital, said this time of year is traditionally the peak of the flu season and this year has been an active season after seeing a couple of mild years.

With the hike in the number of cases, Powers said it is particularly important to take precautions to help prevent the spread of infection.

“Hand-washing, covering your cough and staying home if you have flu-like symptoms are important,” Powers said.

Flu-like symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.

“These symptoms come on fairly abrupt whereas cold symptom onset is more gradual with sneezing, stuffy nose and sore throat,” Powers said.

As of Thursday Onslow Memorial had not set any restrictions regarding visitation at the hospital but all visitors are encouraged to wash hands, cover coughs and use a mask if necessary.

The spike in flu cases in Onslow County is in line with the active season across North Carolina and across the country.

According to the weekly flu report ending Feb. 18 from the Centers for Disease Control, flu activity remained elevated across the United States despite a slight decrease in cases.

Last month, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported the first child death from the flu for the 2016-2017 season. This flu season there have been 19 flu-associated deaths reported in the state, with 14 of the deaths being among individuals older than 65.

Powers said most flu sufferers can recover at home with lots of rest and fluids but there are times when a trip to a doctor’s office, urgent care or a hospital emergency room are needed.

She noted CDC guidelines for determining when symptoms may require medical attention.

In children, watch for fast or trouble breathing; bluish skin color; not drinking enough fluids; not waking up or interacting; being so irritable the child does not want to be held; fever with a rash; or flu-like symptoms that improve and then return with fever and worse cough.

In adults, watch for difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pain or pressure in chest or abdomen; sudden dizziness; confusion; severe or persistent vomiting; or flu-like symptoms that improve and then return with fever and worse cough.