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Publish Date: 3/10/2005

Cold-and-flu season hits late, hard
State is one of 30 with ‘widespread’ infection


LONGMONT — This year’s intense cold-and-flu season has caused both the sick and the well to reference Medieval European history.

It seems, after all, that a plague has visited every house in Boulder and Weld counties.

National statistics confirm the perception of bad bugs circulating and influenza infections spiking late last month.

Normally the October-to-May flu season peaks in late December or early January, according to Longmont Clinic urgent care physician Dr. Spencer King.

Nationwide doctor visits for influenza and flu-like illnesses registered above the baseline for seven consecutive weeks until late February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

And nationwide deaths related to flu and pneumonia topped the epidemic threshold during the last two consecutive weeks of February.

The CDC listed Colorado, along with 30 other states, as one with “widespread” influenza infections.

Add to that flu-like illnesses — viruses symptomatically similar to the flu, but not the genuine article — and suddenly urgent-care waiting rooms get packed.

“I don’t have any data to support it, but we’ve been overwhelmed,” said Dr. Steve Haley, a physician at the Longmont Kaiser Permanente clinic.

The CDC has reported that the influenza viruses now in circulation match the vaccine administered in late 2004 relatively well. So, the virus is either rapidly mutating or other viruses are delivering a remarkably potent punch of flu-like symptoms.

Without bloodwork, it’s tough to tell the difference, King said.

But true flu often strikes like lightning, said Dr. Susan Agrama, a physician and instructor at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.

“People can usually say, ‘Oh, my God, I know exactly when I got sick,’” she said.

Other viruses take more time to take hold.

The real complaint, though, has not been so much about the actual symptoms as about the time it takes to get over them. And that indicates that many sufferers don’t have the flu because it typically lasts only three to five days.

They’re coping with another nasty virus when symptoms linger seven to 10 days and keep them sneezing, wheezing and feeling feverishly lackluster, Agrama said.

These people have kept Longmont Clinic’s King on the go this winter.

But viruses explain only part of the problem, he said.

Whatever is going around and hanging on can compromise the immune system enough to encourage secondary bacterial infections, including bronchitis, pneumonia and sinus infections.

To lighten symptoms, shorten sick time and lessen contagious potential, the CDC recommends getting prescription influenza antiviral drugs within two days of infection.

To safeguard against infection, Agrama recommended the usual strategies — frequent hand-washing and avoiding contact with your nose and eyes because viruses can live for an hour or longer on objects, such as pens and phones.

Eating right, exercising regularly and getting enough rest and water all are great preventative medicine.

But this year, that was clearly not enough.

“All it takes (to get sick) is one little viral particle,” Haley said.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.

Find out more

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/flu or 800-CDC-INFO

• Colorado Department of Health and Environment: www.cdphe.state.co.us, 303-692-2000

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