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NBC - Flu season has begun early and with a vengeance, particularly in the southeastern United States.

Waiting rooms are filling up with coughing, sneezing, feverish, achy patients.

"It's earlier this year, and it's more severe. This is going to be a tough flu season for us," says Dr. Ryan Shelton of Carolinas HealthCare System.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports this is the earliest start to flu activity we've seen since the severe 2003-2004 season.

Doctors are also seeing the same subtype of flu, an H3N2 strain, which was predominant a decade ago.

One difference from the 2003 season is that researchers think this year's flu vaccine is a close match to the viral strains that are circulating.

Doctors insist the vaccine, in shot or mist form, continues to be your best protection against the flu.

They say now's the time to make time to get it.

"If you catch the flu, you will be down for the count for at least a week," Dr. Shelton warns.

The hardest hit states so far are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

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