Early season viruses hitting hard

From upper respiratory infections to symptoms that mimic the flu to hand, foot and mouth disease, the sick season has come in early and in full force this fall season.

Dr. David Patton with Cherry Tree Pediatrics in Uniontown said they have seen a dramatic increase in the number of kids sick with viral illnesses since the beginning of September.

“This is pretty common at the beginning of school years,” he said. “I have seen a number of kids with an illness that either starts with a severe sore throat that progresses to cough and congestion or sometimes all of those symptoms start together.

“Some of these kids have fevers and also some have body aches,” he added. “The severe sore throat seems to only last a few days for most kids. The cough and congestion lasts longer — usually a week to ten days — and if there is a fever, it usually only lasts a couple days, with the body aches seeming to improve in two to three days.”

Dr. Gregg Nezowitz, area medical director for Med Express, said there are a number of viruses and infections going around this time of year that present similar symptoms.

“This is the time of year when our centers see an uptick in visits relating to upper respiratory troubles and other related symptoms like coughing, sneezing, congestion, fever and body/headaches,” he said. “They may also appear differently in each person, as symptoms sometimes impact some more than others.”

As for the flu, Nezowitz said there’s no hard beginning or end for flu season.

“We see cases of it year-round, but in this area, MedExpress is starting to see flu-like symptoms and illnesses. We did see a slightly higher average number of influenza cases in September than in previous months.”

Patton said they haven’t yet had any flu cases in their office.

“The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) will resume full, weekly FluView reports on Oct. 12, but as of yet, there does not seem to be much flu activity,” he said.

There is not much that a person can do when sick with a viral infection other than treat the symptoms, health officials said, noting that colds, flu and most sore throats and bronchitis are caused by viruses, but antibiotics do not kill or help fight off viruses.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, taking antibiotics when you have a virus may do more harm than good.

“Taking antibiotics when they are not needed increases your risk of developing an infection later that resists antibiotic treatment,” said the department’s website.

“For individuals, antibiotics can cause side effects that we would only want to tolerate if the antibiotic was clearly of benefit,” said Patton. “In terms of our community, the previously mentioned antibiotic resistance issue is even bigger. The more antibiotics we use in general, the less effective they will be for anyone who really needs them.”

But sometimes those symptoms can turn into a secondary, bacterial infection such as pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections or bronchitis.

“Many bacterial illnesses occur as secondary infections from what start as viral upper respiratory infections (colds),” said Patton. “For instance, ear infections are very direct secondary infections from colds. Pneumonia can also occur as a secondary infection from a viral illness.”

The typical course for a viral illness is that it will worsen over three to four days, then stay the same for about a week, and then improve, he said.

“If there is fever, it is usually restricted to the first three to four days of illness,” Patton said. “If a child’s course of illness falls outside of this range, or if there is significant pain, difficulty breathing, refusal to drink, or change in mental status, then the child should be evaluated.”

Nezowitz said the best course of action against contracting these viruses as little as possible is a very simple one.

“Basic healthy hygiene habits can really make a difference,” he said. “There are a couple easy ones to remember, like sneezing or coughing into your elbow or a tissue; avoid contact with others who are sick; avoid touching your mouth, eyes, nose and face frequently; and of course, wash your hands as often as you can, and carry some hand sanitizer with you for when soap and water aren’t available.”

According to the CDC, there are many different flu viruses and they are constantly changing.

“The composition of U.S. flu vaccines is reviewed annually and updated as needed to match circulating flu viruses,” the CDC reported. “Flu vaccines protect against the three or four viruses (depending on vaccine) that research suggests will be most common. For 2018-19, trivalent (three-component) vaccines were recommended to contain updated strains of the H1N1 virus, strains of the H3N2 virus and strains of the Victoria lineage virus.

Quadrivalent (four-component) vaccines, contain the three strains in the trivalent, but add protection against a second lineage of B viruses.

The CDC recommends that everyone ages six months and older get a flu vaccine each year. They also recommend getting a flu vaccine before flu begins spreading in your community.

“It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body, and so the CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October,” said their website. “Getting vaccinated later, however, can still be beneficial, and vaccination should continue to be offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later.”

Children who are 5 years of age or younger and any child under the age of 8 years who has never received a flu vaccine before will need to get two doses.

“These children should start the vaccination process sooner, because the two doses must be given at least four weeks apart,” said the CDC website.

The CDC added that it is not possible to predict with certainty if a flu vaccine will be a good match for circulating flu viruses.

“A flu vaccine is made to protect against the flu viruses that research and surveillance indicate will likely be most common during the season. However, experts must pick which flu viruses to include in a flu vaccine many months in advance in order for flu vaccines to be produced and delivered on time,” the website said.

“Also flu viruses change constantly (called “drift”),” the website indicated. “They can change from one season to the next or they can even change within the course of one flu season. Another factor that can impact vaccine effectiveness, especially against influenza A(H3N2) viruses, are changes that can occur in vaccine viruses as they are grown in eggs, which is the production method for most current flu vaccines. Because of these factors, there is always the possibility of a less than optimal match between circulating flu viruses and the viruses in a flu vaccine.”

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