Remember that big New Year's smooch you gave your significant other at midnight?

It may have included more than affection.

There are weeks still to go before the normal peak of the January and February flu season, but area hospitals and physicians report they've started seeing dozens of patients complaining of flu symptoms--aches, nausea, sneezing and coughing.

And with the close of a holiday season with crowded parties and buffets, doctors expect they'll be seeing more illness, and soon.

"It's here. It made itself known about two weeks ago," said Christopher Wuerker, an emergency physician at Washington Hospital Center. The onset was fairly sudden--one day was a normal day in the emergency room; the next day people started coming in with symptoms.

"Really, it's just amazing how obvious it is from the ER perspective," said Wuerker, who is getting over a bout with the flu.

At Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, David Srour, the emergency department vice chairman, said he's seeing a lot of sick people.

"It seems that we're seeing a lot of cases, and it seems to be earlier than usual," Srour said. He wouldn't say that every respiratory virus he's seen at Shady Grove has been the flu, because patients aren't always tested. "That's the caveat. We see a lot of people with flulike syndrome. There's a lot of things that look like the flu and are pretty darn close to it," he said.

So far, evidence is mostly anecdotal, and scientists disagree about the severity of the flu outbreak in the Washington region. Federal statistics indicate statewide outbreaks of flu farther west, including Utah, Montana and Washington State.

Northern Virginia is among other areas reporting outbreaks of influenza in concentrated areas to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Maryland and the District of Columbia have not.

"The flu season is clearly picking up in some areas of the country," said Keiji Fukuda, the physician who heads the CDC's influenza section. However, Fukuda said, "we haven't detected any new virus, and we don't know when it's going to peak. We can't really assess where the severity is going to be."

At the Virginia, Maryland and District departments of health, officials said they have seen some flu cases but nothing that marks an unusually active season.

"We generally get off to a slow, rolling start with the flu season," said Dale Rohn, chief of communicable disease surveillance for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Even among local hospitals, there's some question as to whether it's the flu that has been bringing in the sniffly, feverish crowds.

"I think we've not been smacked yet," said physician Robert Cates, vice chairman of the Inova Fairfax Hospital emergency department. The hospital is seeing more sick people, but upper respiratory infections of all kinds are common this time of year, he said.

"We do think it has started here, but we think we're in the leading edge," Cates said.

Those who think they have the flu have the option of taking some newly approved prescription drugs instead of fighting it out with over-the-counter medicines. Relenza and Tamiflu, both approved this year, help prevent the reproduction of the flu virus and ease the length and severity of the illness. However, treatment needs to be started within two days of the onset of symptoms for the medicines to do much good, doctors say.

Otherwise, the time-honored advice applies for those with the flu: Drink plenty of fluids and get rest.

It's not too late to get a flu shot, added Thomas J. Sullivan, a pediatrician who practices in Alexandria and Lake Ridge. Children in day care may especially benefit because cutting down on the risk of flu also cuts down on the risk of ear infections, he said.

"Since there are so many kids in day care, they pass things back and forth to each other," said Sullivan, also a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.