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Health Today: Stay vigilant in preventing disease this winter

by Stephen Houghland, MD, medical director, Centers for Primary Care last modified Feb 07, 2011 12:21 PM

(Editor's Note: Health Today is a regular column from health care professionals at UofL that features information ranging from health issues to UofL faculty/staff benefits.)

As if there were not enough things to worry about with the ice, snow and cold temperatures, we have to continually worry about acute illnesses during this time of year. There are seemingly endless numbers of infections - viral and bacterial - that we have to be concerned about, and this time of year is certainly no exception. There are a number of reasons that can be pointed to for why the winter months see more upper and lower respiratory infections; however, a very important one is the reality that many people spend more time in an enclosed environment during this time of year. This seems to allow for easier transmission of the cause of these illnesses, especially viruses.

Every year a great deal of time and effort is spent trying to educate the community on influenza (flu) for good reason. One of the unfortunate effects of this is a lessening of the impact of other influenza-like illnesses (ILI). Unfortunately we do not have a vaccine for all causes of viral respiratory illnesses, so other easy forms of prevention remain extremely important. The major preventative techniques of good hand washing, covering coughs and avoiding exposing others when you are sick work for all viral causes of respiratory illness.

Many people ask, "What is the difference between the common cold (caused by a rhino virus) and the flu." For most people a cold will be limited to symptoms in the head and neck: low grade fever, runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, cough, etc.  The flu can have all the above and is also much more likely to produce severe muscle aches and pneumonia. Influenza A type H1N1 is also more likely to be milder than other influenza virus infections, affect younger adults and have symptoms that include nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Currently the Commonwealth of Kentucky is reporting increased activity of influenza-like illnesses (ILI).  About 25 percent of ILI in the region that includes Kentucky have confirmed positive tests for Influenza. Fortunately there has been little if any resistance identified in these viruses. Also the majority of strains found have been one of the three included in this year's vaccination.

So what should we do? It still is not too late to get a flu vaccine if you haven't already. Keep in mind that complete immunity takes time to develop, so it is still possible to contract the flu in this time period while the immune system is going to work! Practice good hand washing and prevent exposing others to illness. Seek evaluation early if you have not been vaccinated because early flu can be treated with antiviral medications that can lessen the severity - especially in high risk groups: the young, people over age 65, pregnant women, people with suppressed immune function, and/or people with chronic medical conditions (lung, heart, liver, or kidney diseases).

Remember that prevention is almost always better than treating a condition once it develops. If symptoms do develop, seek evaluation sooner rather than later, especially if you are in a higher risk group.

UofL Health Care Centers for Primary Care are available for influenza vaccine and all of your primary care needs. You can reach us at the UofL Health Care Outpatient Center at 401 E. Chestnut St., telephone 813-2222; and Cardinal Station at the corner of Third Street and Central Avenue, telephone 852-5666.

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