Amid the hustle and bustle of the holidays, another season quietly arrived, leaving fever, chills and body aches in its wake.
"We're having a significant uptick in the numbers of people who are going in to see their doctors for what we call influenza-like illness," said Jim Lando, acting chief of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Allegheny County Health Department. "It's not all flu, but a good proportion of it is."
Currently, he said, about 6 percent of all visits to emergency rooms are for flu-like illness, significantly higher than the typical 2 percent.
Wayne Ludkiewicz, doctor of emergency medicine at St. Clair Hospital in Upper St. Clair, said that facility is seeing at least 10 people a day with confirmed viral cultures of influenza, which is much higher than usual.
Cases popped up sporadically in mid-December but quickly gained momentum around the holidays, he said.
"As everyone gets together for the holidays and spreads their germs around, there's been a resurgence," Dr. Ludkiewicz said. "We're a mobile society ... you get people from all corners of the United States getting together in Pittsburgh, and they bring all those germs together and then they go back home and whatever they picked up, they spread around in their own neighborhood."
The virus, which normally escalates in January and peaks in late February, has arrived earlier than usual, said Dr. Lando, who added that health officials are not sure whether it has reached its peak yet.
Flu symptoms are typically much worse than those of the common cold, he said, and can include fever, body aches and extreme tiredness coupled with a dry cough.
A simple swab test can determine if someone has the flu and, if diagnosed early, an anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza can be administered. Dr. Lando said those medications reduce the duration of symptoms by about a day. To produce the most benefit, they should be initiated within the first 48 hours of contracting the virus.
In general, Dr. Lando said, he doesn't recommend anti-viral medications unless the patient is at higher risk for complications from influenza, such as a chronic disease sufferer or pregnant woman.
Treatment for the flu should be symptomatic and include plenty of fluids and rest, he said.
If symptoms such as difficulty breathing, painful swallowing, persistent coughing, headaches, or fever, chest pain, or dehydration surface, then a trip to the doctor's office or emergency room is warranted, he said.
In general, though, he recommended infected persons wait until the virus runs its course, which is typically from one week to 10 days.
"A lot of people are going to emergency rooms and urgent care [centers] looking for answers to a question that doesn't have an answer aside from time," he said.
Whether a person has a cold or the flu, Dr. Lando said, the health department strongly encourages individuals not to go to work and pass their illness to their colleagues.
"Prevention is our first line and then when people get sick, the secondary prevention is to keep other people from catching it," he said. "People often go to work and feel like they need to be heroes and that's infecting others in their office. Stay home. Don't pass it on."
Dr. Ludkiewicz agreed that prevention is the best medicine and urged everyone to get a flu shot.
To date, Dr. Lando said, this year's vaccine appears to be a good match for the influenza strains that are circulating, but he urged people to get a shot soon because it takes about two weeks to develop protective antibodies.
"My basic message is to people that it's not too late to go and get vaccinated and they should get it before it runs out," he said. "Given the severity of the season, I think lots of people are going to want to be vaccinated, and the sooner they get the vaccine on board, the better."
Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.