The flu bug has arrived in Kansas and is biting hard.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued an alert to health care providers this week, warning of a sharp increase in influenza-like illness in Kansas. KDHE says the percentage of patients seeking care for such viruses increased from 1.6 percent in the week ending December 14 to 4.6 percent in the week ending December 28.
Topeka's two hospitals are seeing the rush. Patients started swarming their emergency department right after Christmas. Saint Francis Health Center saw 39 confirmed influenza cases last week, while Stormont-Vail HealthCare ran nearly 500 tests in that time, with 86 positive results. Plus, Saturday December 28th set a 24-hour record for ER patients at Stormont, with 246 visitors, most of them seeking relief from flu-like symptoms.
Stormont has been keeping a visual reminder of the rush in the center of its ER. An influenza tally board has hash marks for each flu case making its way through their doors. The patients don't have a set demographic, with all age groups being seen.
But Stormont emergency physician Matthew Lockwood says the reality is that most of those patients would be better off at home. He says, in most cases, there is no treatment other than to let the virus run its course. Lockwood says that people who are young and otherwise healthy who get influenza can expect to feel "awful" for five to seven days. He says they will experience a high fever, feel achy and have a runny nose and cough.
"That's all normal," Lockwood said. "It's frightening, but normal."
Lockwood said such patients may be able to get prescription medications to alleviate some symptoms, such as a severe cough. However, he says the best treatment usually is to rest, drink plenty of fluids and take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for aches.
There are some patients, though, who should see a doctor or the emergency room for flu-like illness. Those would include children under the age of two, the elderly, or those who experience severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, light-headedness or fainting, persistent vomiting or dehydration.
The Centers for Disease Control has identified H1N1 as the prevalent strain of influenza A that is currently circulating. The strain was first seen in 2009 and was known for causing severe illness in young and middle-aged adults. The CDC says it is not clear why the strain has resurfaced.
H1N1 is included in the seasonal flu vaccination. Lockwood says some people who received the vaccine are among those testing positive for influenza. However, he says it is expected their symptoms will clear up more quickly and be less severe. He also adds it isn't known how many more people might have become ill if they hadn't received the vaccination.
Lockwood says it's not too late for those who didn't receive a vaccination to get one. He says it not only will protect against the influenza A currently circulating but also the influenza B strains that have yet to surface this season.
Keep in mind, influenza isn't the only virus that peaks this time of year. To protect yourself against all the bugs, health experts say to wash your hands frequently, cover your coughs and sneezes, avoid close contact with people showing symptoms and, if you are sick yourself, stay home.