By Robbie Owens

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – North Texans are spreading more than cheer this holiday season. The flu bug is back.

Rebeca Espinoza of Dallas managed to visit family over Thanksgiving and all she brought back was an adorable black lab.

“Everybody was healthy!” says Espinoza as she took the pup for an afternoon walk at Dallas’ Main Street Garden park. “And I got a puppy, too!”

On the heels of a horrible season last year, local health officials are encouraging North Texans to take no chances: Get a flu shot now.

“Flu can cause a lot of secondary complications that can be life threatening,” warns Baylor Scott & White family medicine doctor, Benjamin McKinney M.D. “Last year, there were 80,000 deaths related to the flu.”

And while it is too soon to say if this season will bring more of the same, Fort Worth ambulance provider MedStar says it has noticed a troubling trend.

“Our data shows that we’ve had three times the number of flu symptoms as opposed to last year, which is certainly a concern,” says Operations Supervisor Roland Hernandez. “We’re hoping most people are taking advantage of flu shots that are being given for free, or going to your private physician to get them.”

Adding to the warning, Dr. McKinney says even otherwise healthy patients can succumb to the flu or its complications. So it’s important, he says, to know the symptoms that should send you to see your primary care doctor, rather than self-medicating at home.

“Usually flu is a pretty quick onset, it’s gonna hit you like a train,” says Dr. McKinney. “You’re going to go from feeling okay to feeling pretty bad, really quickly. Fever, achy all over, more so than you would with a common cold.”

And once you recognize those symptoms, he says seeking treatment sooner will lead to a faster recovery. “If you wait too long, the main treatment for a typically healthy person may not have that much benefit: the most benefit is found the first two days of the illness,” says Dr. McKinney.

The preference of course, is to stay healthy: Practicing good hygiene, frequent hand washing, getting enough sleep, eating well and managing stress.

“I try to wash my hands as much as possible and I’m going to get my flu shot to try to stay healthy,” promises Espinoza with a laugh. “I will do it! You got me!