Woman getting vaccine

Primary Care | 4 months ago

Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones During Respiratory Virus Season

Cold weather and holiday celebrations mean more indoor socialization. Get the facts about the risks of respiratory illnesses and learn how to keep your family and friends healthy.

As temperatures continue to drop, cases of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, flu and RSV (or respiratory syncytial virus), are expected to rise – especially in the South. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu hospitalizations spiked 200% in the past month, with COVID-19 and RSV hospitalizations also increasing.

Doctors expect the number of cases of respiratory illnesses to continue to increase after the holidays. The holiday season means more people are traveling and spending time indoors in enclosed spaces at large family gatherings and business meetings. These high-risk situations mean more people will be passing viruses to each other, which is especially concerning for high-risk patients.

Dr. Marc Lewin, medical director of Atrium Health Primary Care Carmel Family Medicine, has seen a significant increase in the demand for primary care appointments within his practice. One month ago, he was only seeing one or two COVID-19 patients per week. Now, he’s seeing two to three patients with COVID-19 each day. In addition to his full schedule of appointments, Lewin is fitting in additional patients who are sick to help meet the growing demand.

Lewin discusses the severity of respiratory illnesses, the importance of testing and vaccination and tips for staying healthy during this high-risk season.

The danger of respiratory illnesses

The most common symptoms of respiratory viruses are nasal congestion, coughing, sore throat, headache, fatigue and muscle aches. Less common symptoms include gastrointestinal symptoms (such as nausea and diarrhea) and changes in your sense of smell and taste.

According to Lewin, some people may think respiratory illnesses are harmless.

“While most people who get a respiratory virus will experience a mild illness, you never know if it will be mild or severe for a specific person,” explains Lewin. “Even if you only end up with mild symptoms that last a few days, you need to think about how many people you interact with in the community and how you could propagate the spread of respiratory viruses.”

People most at risk for severe illness from respiratory viruses include:

  • Very young patients (infants up to 6 months old)
  • Older adults
  • Patients with underlying conditions, such as lung issues, asthma, heart disease and diabetes
  • Patients on medications that decrease immune system response, like those undergoing chemotherapy

For high-risk patients, a respiratory illness could make them sick enough to require hospitalization or even cause death. The CDC estimates that flu has resulted in 100,000-710,000 hospitalizations and 4,900-52,000 deaths in the U.S. each year between 2010 and 2022.

Low vaccination rates

Vaccination rates across all respiratory viruses are down this year. In fact, only 40% of children and adults received this year’s flu shot. The adult COVID-19 vaccination rate has barely broken 17%.

“There are multiple factors contributing to low vaccination rates,” explains Lewin. “People are burnt out from COVID-19 and don’t want to think about respiratory illnesses and vaccination anymore. Another big factor is the abundance of misinformation about the safety of vaccines.”

The distrust of COVID-19 vaccines is translating to other vaccines. Patients are now less likely to get vaccinated for flu and RSV.

“We have worldwide experience giving these vaccines, which have proven to be very safe,” says Lewin. “In most cases, the side effects associated with the vaccine are much milder than the effects of the actual illness.”

Lewin says each person must consider how refusing vaccination puts others at risk.

“If you choose not to get immunized, you might not get very sick from a respiratory virus,” notes Lewin. “But think about the people around you. If you spread the virus to a high-risk person, you could seriously threaten their health.”  

Tips for staying healthy

Lewin recommends taking the following steps to stay healthy:

  1. Get enough sleep. While individual needs vary, most people need six to eight hours of sleep each day. Getting adequate sleep helps your body’s immune system to function properly.
  2. Exercise regularly. The average adult needs at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of aerobic activity a week to maintain a healthy immune system. This amounts to 30 minutes or more of aerobic activity at least five days a week. The activity doesn’t need to be vigorous; walking is sufficient.
  3. Eat a healthy diet. Healthy foods help boost immune system function. Choose a mostly plant-based diet and avoid excessive carbohydrates.
  4. Avoid large crowds. Stay away from crowds and large gatherings if you are sick.
  5. Wear a mask. If you must be in a crowd, consider wearing a mask. This is especially important if you are a high-risk patient or know sick people will be there.
  6. Practice social distancing. If there’s potential to be around people who are sick, maintain a distance of six feet apart.
  7. Inform others. If you have any symptoms and decide to attend a gathering, reach out to the invitees and let them decide if they are willing to risk being around you.
  8. Get tested. If you have symptoms of respiratory illness, take a home COVID-19 test. This will allow you to more accurately report your health status to the attendees of an upcoming gathering.
  9. Get vaccinated. Get all the recommended vaccines. Your primary care doctor can advise you on what’s recommended based on your age and underlying health issues. The ideal time to get vaccinated is the early fall. But remember, there’s no time like the present!

Primary care and education

Your primary care doctor is often the first line of defense when you get sick. But they also play an important role in educating people on healthy living as well as respiratory virus prevention, immunization and treatment.

Atrium Health Primary Care is a large organization that is stocked and staffed to help patients battle respiratory illnesses and optimize their health. Support includes:

  • An abundant supply of vaccines for COVID-19, flu and RSV
  • Access to primary care providers
  • Virtual visits
  • Urgent care
  • Testing
  • Treatment (when appropriate)

Testing for COVID-19, flu and RSV as soon as possible helps your doctor identify the respiratory virus and make recommendations regarding treatment. This is especially important for high-risk patients. Testing helps doctors give better advice to patients on how to manage their symptoms and handle contact with other people.

When it comes to testing for COVID-19, rapid at-home tests might not show positive results for several days. These tests also have a significant false-negative rate, meaning there’s a high number of positives that yield negative test results.

Patients who test positive for COVID-19 (or who have symptoms but haven’t tested) should contact their primary care doctor if they have significant symptoms and/or are in a high-risk group. Seeing a doctor as early as possible can decrease your likelihood of developing a serious illness.

If appropriate, your doctor can prescribe a medication to treat COVID-19 that helps prevent hospitalizations and death in high-risk patients. The medicine is only effective if you are treated within the first five days of the onset of symptoms.

“Upper respiratory illnesses are a part of life and always will be,” says Lewin. “Therefore, we should all do our best to stay healthy and prevent spreading these illnesses to others by getting vaccinated. It’s important to think outside of our immediate surroundings and be thoughtful of others, especially high-risk individuals.”  

As the region's most preferred health care provider, Atrium Health Primary Care is making primary care easier and better for you and your family. Call us 24/7 at 1-844-235-6997 or make an appointment online.