The flu season has arrived early and is spreading fast across Canada, making more people sick and keeping emergency room doctors busy.

Influenza infections usually peak in January orFebruary, but the World Health Organization says flu activity has spiked in Canada and the United States, just as people are travelling and gathering in large groups for the holidays.

All that socializing has accelerated the spread of the virus and experts worry that clinics and hospital could soon be overwhelmed with flu patients.

That’s already happening at the Lakeridge Health hospital in Oshawa, Ont., just east of Toronto, where many patients have recently been admitted with severe flu symptoms.

“The fear is that even our critical care could be overwhelmed because there are very sick patients coming in,” said Dr. Dan Ricciuto, an infectious disease specialist.

Dr. Barbara  Raymond of the Public Health Agency of Canada said flu outbreaks have  also been reported in long-term care facilities.

“We are seeing more severe illness,” she said.

Last year, Canada experienced a mild flu season with lower rates of illness.

Doctors say the problem is that many people are not following simple prevention measures, such as washing their hands often and covering their mouths while coughing.

“If you are sick, stay home. The influenza virus is not a gift you want to give to friends and family,” Raymond said.

The other problem is that fewer people seem to be getting the flu vaccine this year, but doctors stress that it’s not too late to get the shot.

This year’s flu vaccine has been reformulated to include a new strain – H3N2 – which the World Health Organization says is now dominant in Canada and the U.S.

Tracking the flu online

Thanks to social media, a Baltimore-based website says it’s able to detect flu infection patterns before health officials do by monitoring people’s posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Graham Dodge, the founder of, says his team monitors social media sites for users’ complaints about the flu, as well as whooping cough and other infectious illnesses.

“We identified that the flu was starting to hit earlier this year than previous and sure enough six weeks later (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in the U.S confirmed an earlier than usual flu season,” he said.

Dodge said the site can reliably track the flu’s spread by looking at real-time posts from sick people.

“Some are actual diagnoses, some are not. We get to capture the people who did see the doctor and who didn’t see the doctor,” he said.

“Anyone can use the website to see what the forecast is in their area. They don’t have to wait for public organizations to announce it.”

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip