The manic merriment of the holiday season is behind us. For the seasonal flu virus, however, the show has just begun.
January typically brings a marked increase in reports of the congestion, aches, fatigue and other misery that distinguish seasonal influenza. This year has been no exception, as the illness claimed the life of at least one area resident in the first weeks of traditional flu season. Making matters worse, an old villain has reared its head anew, and it is hitting many who may consider themselves at minimal risk.
As of Dec. 31, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had isolated 452 samples of flu virus for testing. Of those, 398 were found to be of the H1N1 strain. Sometimes nicknamed swine flu, the strain so far was at its most malignant in 2009, when it was blamed for more than 12,000 fatalities in the U.S. alone.
The good news is that this year’s vaccine formulation, unlike its counterpart that year, includes H1N1. That means those who get a flu shot are better equipped to resist the strain, or to recover from it more rapidly if they do become ill.
The flu virus has picked up significant steam since the first of the year. And while seniors and babies are typically at highest risk of flu and its complications, this year the demographics appear to have shifted. The CDC reported that more than six of 10 of those admitted for flu treatment in hospitals are between 25 and 64 years old.
“There is no doubt we are experiencing a severe flu season,” said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Local numbers up
Will County tallied nine hospital admissions for flu in December, after just one each in October and November, and then reported 19 in the first week of January.
“We’re expecting, based on information we’re receiving from other parts of the country, that when school comes back, when kids have an opportunity to pass these little bugs along, we’ll see more,” department spokesman Vic Reato said last week.
Students across the region returned Jan. 8 from winter break, after classes were canceled Jan. 6 and 7 because of the extraordinarily cold temperatures as the week began.
In DuPage County, the nine reports of ICU admissions through Dec. 28 were followed by 11 more in the week that ended Jan. 4.
The early-season incidences included one flu death in DuPage, which occurred in mid-October, county health department surveillance reports show. Little additional detail was available.
“We can only share that the death occurred in a DuPage County resident in the age group of 65 years and older,” department spokeswoman Jorie Green said.
Dr. Rashmi Chugh, medical officer at the health department, was expecting the flu’s incidence to continue going up in the new year.
“We’re seeing an increase in influenza-like illness activity across the board, in outpatient, inpatient and emergency department settings, as well as in cold and flu over-the-counter drug sales,” Chugh said.
Bracing for more
Local hospitals and other public health agencies are seeing similar increases.
Kane County public health officials have recorded just a handful of hospital patients needing treatment for flu, but they are girding for their numbers to rise as well.
“So far we have five cases of intensive care unit admissions for the season,” said Kate Marishta, assistant director of the agency’s disease prevention division. “It’s usually in January we see the peak of influenza.”
Flu numbers also are on the rise at Presence Mercy Medical Center in Aurora, according to Marianne Renner, marketing project coordinator.
“We’re seeing more patients being hospitalized with influenza, with a marked rise in the age 25 to 64 age group. Last week, eight people were hospitalized with flu,” Renner said Friday.
Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin is starting to see more flu patients as well. Tonya Lucchetti-Hudson, director of public affairs and marketing, said although the hospital has admitted just two influenza patients into its intensive care unit this season, an increasing segment of those coming to its emergency room are exhibiting the symptoms of flu. During the week of Dec. 14, 2.6 percent of the ER patients were treated for flu-like illness, and by Jan. 4, the proportion had grown to 7.6 percent.
“About 50 percent of these patients were in the zero to 4 age group,” Lucchetti-Hudson said.
Know when to go
Experts don’t advise rushing to the ER when symptoms appear, and the incidence of flu in the community may be substantially higher. An intensive-care hospital setting is often necessary to treat flu patients with severe respiratory illness whose breathing normally is compromised, but according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, in the majority of cases the best course of action is staying home to rest and recover.
There is no rapid cure for the illness, so treating its symptoms is the most promising way to bring relief.
Dr. Tom Scaletta, director of the emergency department at Edward Hospital in Naperville, said while there are remedies on the store shelf that have the word “flu” in their names, they don’t necessarily do anything to alleviate the misery.
“Those medicines do not make dramatic differences,” Scaletta said.
Instead, he recommends treating symptoms with an analgesic such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), as well as chicken soup, water and plenty of rest.
“Pick the one that usually works the best for you,” Scaletta said, advising that the second pain reliever be tried if symptoms haven’t eased an hour after the first one was taken. “If one does it, just fine. You don’t have to take both.”
In McHenry County, hospital officials have taken steps to contain the spread of flu by expanding the limitations on visitors. Some nearby health facilities, such as Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, are beginning to implement similar measures.
Part of a trend
Scaletta said the increase in cases at Edward parallels the national reports coming from the CDC. Patients, he said, are reporting symptoms similar to those they experience in other years: sore throat, sinus congestion, cough and fever — compounded by muscle aches and profound fatigue. It’s that combination, which leaves the afflicted in virtual paralysis for several days, that separates the flu from a bad cold.
“Naperville has got tons of Type A people who are frustrated when they can’t get out of bed,” Scaletta said.
Those who come down with the virus can expect to be out of their normal rhythm for about a week, and it’s important to stay home from work or school until symptoms have cleared up.
“You’ll just knock out a lot more people,” Scaletta said. “Plus, you’re not going to be productive.”
Data released by the IDPH Friday shows Illinois is one of 37 states experiencing the highest intensity of flu reports, two dozen more than were seeing activity at that level the previous week, when cases were concentrated in the central U.S. south of Illinois. Canada is seeing sharply elevated numbers of flu reports as well.
“It’s coming from the north, it’s coming from the south,” Will County’s Reato said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re going to see more cases.”
The virus, he noted, can be capricious. The effectiveness of the flu shot — estimated at 62 percent this year, the CDC says — can vary from one season to another as well. The vaccine is formulated each spring, using data drawn from the opposite hemisphere, where it’s early winter and the flu season is beginning.
“It’s educated guesswork certainly, because it’s from Australia, New Zealand,” Reato said. “Keep in mind, Mother Nature is much smarter than we are. Those bugs can change in an instant.”