Flu season gets head start
SALISBURY — The flu is striking early in Rowan County this year.
Cold or flu?
Is it a cold or the flu?
Common cold symptoms:
• Gradual onset over a few days
• Cough (productive, mucus-producing)
• Mild body aches
• Mild tiredness
• Sneezing *
• Stuffy or runny nose *
• Sore throat *
Common influenza symptoms:
• Rapid onset over a few hours
• Cough (nonproductive, dry)
• Severe aches and pains, including headache
• Severe tiredness
• Fever, usually high
• Chest discomfort
* May accompany the flu, but is less common.
“This is the first real flu season we’ve had in a while,” said Dr. Ronnie J. Barrier, with Rowan Family Physicians in Salisbury. “It’s been bad.”
The past couple of winters have been mild for influenza, Barrier said. But this season, more people are showing up at the doctor’s office with the flu, and they’re coming in earlier.
“Already, we have many more cases than we saw last year combined,” Barrier said.
Even a few doctors and physician’s assistants have been out with the flu recently, he said.
Barrier said physicians are now squeezing more appointments into their schedule and extending their evening hours to see more patients.
“It has been overwhelming,” he said. “We are even treating some people over the phone so they don’t have to come into the office - people who have basic flu-like symptoms.”
To help keep the virus from spreading, Rowan Family Physicians has divided its waiting rooms into sick and well rooms. Patients with respiratory symptoms like coughing or sneezing are asked to put on surgical masks, which they only take off during the examination.
The community can help, too, he said.
“The best thing is for people who are sick to stay home... until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours,” Barrier said. That’s without the aid of fever reducers like Tylenol or Advil.
But it may be helpful to leave home for the doctor’s office if flu symptoms have just begun.
A medication called Tamiflu can shorten the duration of the flu, Barrier said, but it only works if the person is treated within the first 48 hours.
Antibiotics are not effective against viruses like influenza, he said, but the flu can weaken the immune system and make people more susceptible to bacterial infections. If someone is recovering from the flu and then starts to feel worse, it could be an infection that can be treated with an antibiotic.
Some people who are coming down with the flu have said they got their flu shot this year, Barrier said. That could mean that a certain strain is going around that was not covered in the annual vaccine.
Even if it’s one of the included strains, the vaccine is about 80 percent effective, said Suzanne Murphy, infection preventionist with Rowan Regional Medical Center.
Still, the primary way to avoid getting the flu is to be vaccinated against it, she said.
Frequent hand washing can also prevent spread of the virus. And those who are already sick can practice “cough etiquette,” Murphy said.
“When you cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue, dispose of the tissue and sanitize your hands,” she said. “If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow.”
At each entrance, the hospital has placed a stand with surgical masks, alcohol-based hand sanitizer and tissues. In addition, special precautions are taken around patients with flu symptoms, Murphy said
Dr. Harsheel Desai, who works in emergency medicine at the hospital, said people in the emergency room sometimes wear masks now, either to protect themselves or protect other people. The hospital is seeing more cases now than usual at this point in the season, he said.
Normally, the flu doesn’t rise to the level of emergency, Desai said. People can treat themselves at home by drinking plenty of fluids, staying rested and taking pain relievers like Tylenol, Advil or Motrin (which also reduce fever).
But people should seek immediate medical attention if they have trouble breathing or feel so weak that they can barely function, he said. That’s especially true for very young children and adults over age 65.
Bill Johnson, administrator of Lutheran Home at Trinity Oaks, said one wing of the building was quarantined for a couple of days this week because some residents had “respiratory symptoms.”
He said older adults’ immune systems can be very compromised, so the staff took measures to keep illness from spreading. The quarantine was lifted Thursday, he said.
“We have not had anyone test positive for the flu, nor have we had any staff test positive,” Johnson said.
Rowan-Salisbury School System has been seeing a combination of the flu and stomach viruses, said Susan Thomas, district school nurse supervisor.
“Last fall was a very calm one, and we didn’t really have any problems,” Thomas said. “We’re seeing more this year, but it’s not as bad as I’ve seen.”
Thomas also gave advice for children to stay home when they have a fever, and only go back to school 24 hours after the fever goes away naturally.
But people can be contagious for at least five to seven days after the onset of the flu, Murphy said, and that doesn’t always match up with the end of a fever.
If they can’t stay our of work of school for that long, she recommends that people recovering from the flu try to stay more than three feet away from others. Murphy said that’s how far the influenza virus can travel through the air when people cough or sneeze.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.