CHICAGO (CBS) — The flu bug has started hitting the Chicago area early this year, and it’s hitting hard this season.

CBS 2’s Pamela Jones has a look at why.

Before Dr. Kimbra Bell touches her patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she washes her hands with antibacterial soap. She knows helping people get well means staying well herself.

Experts were predicting a longer and stronger flu season this year. So after Dr. Bell’s exams, she washes again.

She comes into contact with viruses every day, so it’s not easy keeping away from the flu.

“Basically, it can be a very difficult thing to stay away from. However not as hard as many may think; washing your hands is the key,” she said.

She said covering door handles before you open the door, and using hand sanitizer can help, but good old soap and water is best.

“I typically use an antibacterial soap, warm water,” Bell said. “I wash my hands for one to two minutes.”

She and patients like Monica Sykora are not shopping for sanitizer this flu season. They got the flu vaccine, because it’s the best defense.

“I don’t want to be wasting my time being sick, especially around the holidays. I want to spend the time with my family,” Sykora said.

Walgreens pharmacy manager Nancy Salman said now might be the best time to get a flu shot.

“If you haven’t already done so, it is important to get the flu shot, because it takes two weeks to get full immunity,” she said.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital has seen 39 flu patients hospitalized since Sept. 1. Last year, they only had one patient during that time.

There were 27 reported influenza cases at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood so far this year, which is a sharp increase from last year when the first flu case wasn’t reported until December.

Since Nov. 5, the University of Chicago Medical Center has had 24 reported influenza cases, a significant jump from last year when the first flu case wasn’t reported until Jan. 12. Only 43 cases were reported at the hospital from July 2011 through May 2012.

Rush University Medical Center also is noticing a surprising number of reported flu cases this year, spokeswoman Cassandra Cirra said. Since Nov. 15, there have been 36 reported cases compared to last year when there were no reported cases.

(Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report)