The flu season in the U.S. this year got off to its earliest start in nearly a decade, which indicates that it might be a bad year for many trying to avoid the illness, officials said Monday as they urged people to get the shots early to minimize the impact of the disease.

In a flu activity report released Nov. 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) observed how flu cases had increased substantially in the U.S., especially in the south central and southeast regions.

Apparently, five states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, witnessed a high rate of influenza-like illness in the period between Nov. 18 and Nov. 24. This year's flu type appears similar to the one identified in the flu season of 2003-2004, when the outbreak was severe.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, has urged citizens to get the flu shot early to minimize the impact of the deadly disease.

Campaigning for the National Influenza Vaccination Week, which is observed every year from Dec. 2 to Dec. 8, Frieden said that the flu shot and proactive measures such as covering the mouth when coughing and washing hands after a cough prevented the spread of the disease, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The flu vaccines are recommended for all citizens older than six months, and the shot usually takes two weeks to bolster the body's immune system effectively.

Children younger than two and adults 65 or older seem to be at high risk for getting the flu. Also those suffering from chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease appear to be at risk.

Even Washington seems to have fallen victim to the flu. The city has seen an increase in flu-like illnesses in the past month, although its infection rates are well below epidemic levels, health officials pointed out. The officials added that no deaths had been reported.

Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health, told the Associated Press how flu activity in Washington tends to peak in January or February and occasionally as late as April.

As per CDC records, an average of about 24,000 Americans succumb to the flu during the annual season, the Seattle Times reported. The CDC added that the flu virus usually peaks in midwinter.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some patients also suffer from vomiting and diarrhea, while some may develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

Three types of flu shots are available, according to the CDC:

• A regular flu shot approved for people of age six months and older

• A high-dose flu shot approved for people 65 years and older, and

• An intradermal flu shot approved for people 18 to 64 years of age.  (An intradermal shot is injected into the skin instead of the muscle, and uses a much smaller needle than the regular flu shot.)