watch out

It is still early in the illness season but already we are seeing surges of three worrisome seasonal infections rearing their ugly heads after last year’s unusually light season.

The COVID-19 pandemic, despite almost a million deaths from it in the United States, slowed the spread of influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus in 2020 and 2021.

We masked, avoided crowds, got vaccinated, and washed our hands after such everyday encounters such as filling our gas tanks and grocery shopping.

We did more online shopping. We simply had fewer risks of disease exposure the last two years. Now, we are more lax. Daycare centers have reopened, shopping malls are crowded, and people are traveling on planes, trains and buses again. We are going to movie theaters and spending more time in contact with friends and co-workers.

The flu season started early in the south and southeast areas of the country. Flu season generally runs from October to May but cases started appearing in mid-August this year. And thus far, this is the worst season we have experienced in 13 years.

According to the Weekly United States Influenza Surveillance report, 880,000 cases have been reported with 6,900 hospitalizations, and 360 deaths. Lynette Brammer, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated in a report, “It’s unusual, but we are coming out of an unusual COVID pandemic that has really affected influenza and other respiratory viruses that are circulating.”

She also states that this season’s vaccine is well matched against circulating strains. The flu vaccine’s effectiveness has varied in years past from 40% to 60%. But even at 40%, it is certainly better than no vaccine at all.

RSV is a common respiratory illness that can resemble the common cold. It is usually a winter or seasonal illness, but case numbers began to arise as early as July and August this year. Many people get it and have no ill effects. But this virus can be very serious in babies, young children and senior citizens. The usual symptoms include coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, and sometimes wheezing.

In babies, the illness may present with irritability and difficulties breathing. Most RSV infections will resolve in seven to 14 days, but more severe illness can occur. Bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the smaller airways, and pneumonia, a lung infection, can result from RSV infections. Infants, people with compromised immune systems, and older adults frequently need to be hospitalized when these symptoms arise. According to the CDC, RSV infections result in 58,000 hospitalizations and 100 to 300 deaths in children less than 5 years old.

COVID-19 seems to be trending downward for the time being; as of Oct. 20, overall cases have declined by 12% though COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 10% in the U.S. Northeast.

This Sars CoV2 virus is elusive and new variants keep appearing. BA.5 is still the dominant strain in the United States at 49% of cases but its latest spinoff, BA.5.2.6 is slowly gaining ground at 2.8%. This one is of particular concern as it appears to be more immune evasive. BQ1 and BQ 1.1 cases are on the rise at 14% and 13.1%. Between January of 2020 and October 2022, 31,514 people in Arizona have died from COVID-19 and its complications. COVID-19 continues to be deadly for many people and we should not let our guard down.

Flu, RSV and COVID-19 symptoms are often similar. Getting tested assures the correct diagnosis when self care measures and symptom management such as rest, fluids, fever reducers, and over-the-counter pain relief are not enough. We currently have vaccines against influenza and COVID-19 — usually at little to no cost. Researchers are working on a vaccine for RSV but until then vigilance is needed to protect those most vulnerable to disease complications.

Prevention is our best ally. Wear a mask in crowded indoor places. Stay away from people who are sick (and anyone with illness symptoms should stay home!). Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of fluids, and stay physically active to optimize your immune system. Get vaccinated; a sore arm for a day or two is a small price to pay to protect yourself and loved ones.

Mia Smitt is a longtime nurse practitioner. She writes a regular column for Tucson Local Media.

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