01/21/09 — Battling the bugs: Young and old fight illnesses

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Battling the bugs: Young and old fight illnesses

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 21, 2009 1:46 PM

Coughing, congestion, runny nose, sinus pressure, headaches, stomach bugs -- flu season's not quite here but all the symptoms are, sending many to emergency rooms and pharmacies for the best cure.

At Immediate Care, most of what is being seen are viral problems, some sinus complaints and gastric disorders, said Melinda Lane, clinical coordinator.

"We have not really seen a lot of flu," she said. "But we have done some flu tests. I think we have had one or two that have been positive for flu."

Doctors there are mainly treating symptoms, she said, with products like Mucinex, which loosens the mucus that causes chest and nasal congestion and works as a cough suppressant.

To bolster immunity, though, Ms. Lane recommends a good multi-vitamin, good diet and rest.

The bad news, she said, is that whatever's going around is not the "24-hour bug."

"Unfortunately, it's not. It lasts longer," she said. "People are wishing for 24-48 hours to 72 hours, but unfortunately it goes a little bit longer than that, anywhere as long as a week and sometimes longer. I wish I had better news for them."

There is some good news, however. Ms. Lane said there are still plenty of flu shots available.

The Health Department also has flu vaccinations available for the public, Health Director James Roosen said.

"They just allowed us to use state flu vaccines and give them away for free to everybody," he said.

The state's announcement came earlier this month, said Debbie Garner, immunization coordinator.

"The state says that the flu vaccine ... may be administered to anyone who wishes to receive it, regardless of age," she said. "We have roughly about 350 doses left."

The flu clinic is open Monday through Thursday 7-11:30 a.m. and 1-5 p.m.

Flu cases have already been verified across the state. Locally, thus far it's been mostly cases of "influenza-like illness," Roosen said.

One positive about the current vaccination, he added, is that it seems to be well-matched to the type of flu virus already being seen this season.

Most patients coming through Walgreens on Berkeley Boulevard are complaining of upper respiratory problems, said Heather Foster, pharmacist.

Many are seeking over-the-counter remedies, especially in cases of viruses, which need to be caught early or treatment won't be as effective. The biggest challenge is avoiding airborne germs.

"No matter where you go, you're going to catch something -- at the bank, at the store, at work," she said. "So it's been about treating the symptoms, and also washing your hands, wiping down the phone, computer, desks."

Whenever there are drastic changes in weather, particularly when it is very warm one day then extremely cold the next, more people tend to get sick. Blaming the weather on illness is questionable, however, Ms. Foster said.

"They teach us in school that, no, the change in weather has no effect," she said. "I think it does affect the body in certain ways, but whether it makes you more susceptible to colds or germs -- you're not going to get that by going outside with wet hair -- but I do think the changing of the temperature so often does play a part in how your body reacts to the germs; your body is kind of out of whack."

With viruses changing every year, there's really no way to be immunized for the whole season, she said. That means finding alternative ways to stay healthy.

As a pharmacist, she recommends vitamin C because over time it tends to work better, orange juice and chicken soup, but added that whatever works is what to choose.

"There's some patients that live by echinacea, Airborne and Zicam, herbal products, but there's not many of those that have been all that successful," she said. "I don't know that those work very well, but I do have patients that use them every year and if that's what makes them feel better, that's good enough for them."

Nola Claiborne is a big believer in Zicam. She and her daughter were recently fighting off colds and found the product effective.

"Zicam has a loading dose of (vitamins) A, C, and zinc, all of your fighters," she said. "I'm a believer in supplements and I do take echinacea in the wintertime. As a general rule, I take vitamin C, calcium and vitamin D because what I eat is deficient in those areas. ... And rest -- get a good amount of sleep -- that's something that everybody needs, especially during the winter."

The gastric ailments that seem to be highly contagious are another concern, Mrs. Claiborne said.

"It seems to have an incubation period of about 6-10 hours after you're exposed to it," she said. "From what I have read, it's the 'cruise ship virus'-- it's all gastrointestinal, upper and lower -- and it lasts 12-24 hours and you don't have an appetite for about three days."

The idea there is to force fluids, stay hydrated and control the fever, she said.

As a parent educator at Goldsboro Pediatrics, Mrs. Claiborne offers advice to parents all the time, especially during flu season. Over-the-counter cold medications are not recommended for children under age 2 and she recommends when a fever lasts more than five days, to have the child checked out to avoid secondary infections.

"The best thing to do with your children that are well, not chronically ill or with asthma, is call the nurse's advice line, talk to a live voice about what we're seeing and see if we can do something for them at home for a day or so and see what we can do for these illnesses," she said.

The advice line is offered through Goldsboro Pediatrics, by calling 734-4736 and listening to the menu of choices.

"That's our first line to help people learn how we can treat these viral illnesses at home that don't go into more serious things."

The hospital is also seeing a spike in patients. A recent census showed 212 patients at Wayne Memorial, greater than its average count of 185, said Amy Cain, director of public relations. None of them were flu cases, she noted.

Most of those categorized as in-patients were there for pneumonia, cardiac-related, post-surgery recovery and existing conditions such as cancer.

Interesting to note, Ms. Cain said, is the rise in pneumonia patients, particularly pediatric.

"We are seeing an increase in pneumonia cases among the young and healthy," she said.

The emergency department also showed an increase in patient volume of late, averaging 153 patients a day versus the typical number of 135 daily visits. The primary complaints, she said, range from abdominal pain and chest pain to falls and extremity injuries and respiratory ailments.

Dr. David Tayloe, president of American Academy of Pediatrics, attributes the epidemics in cold weather to the fact that people stay indoors and close the doors and windows around them.

At Goldsboro Pediatrics, which Tayloe founded, there was a drop-off of patients seen after Christmas, he said. But as soon as children returned to school, volumes picked up again.

"I'm not sure cold weather itself makes you sick. I think there's a lot of hype about going out and getting cold." he said. "I do think there's something to having a good lifestyle -- the regular meals, the regular sleep, exercise -- people that have better physical fitness and health. ... There's never been an article that has convinced me that you can prevent the common cold."

Nor has there been sufficient scientific evidence to favor any of the spate of herbal remedies coming down the pike, he said. His role as national officer this year is to educate patients, especially since some of the over-the-counter offerings might interfere with prescription drugs.

"On the other hand, I haven't read where it's harmful ... so if it makes you feel better to take something, if you're over 18, you have got to be responsible for your health," he said.