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Respiratory Illnesses Rise as Holidays Approach

Last updated: December 7, 2023

As we enter December and prime time for family and social gatherings, respiratory illnesses are also on the rise.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported in mid-November that flu, COVID-19, and RSV cases are increasing. In particular, the state has seen an increase in hospitalizations of young children infected with RSV.

Cases of respiratory illnesses of all kinds tend to spike in the colder months as people begin to spend more time indoors, and that’s just what we’re seeing, says Dr. Montgomery “Monk” Elmer, of the ThedaCare Primary Care and Continuous Improvement Leadership Teams.

Here, Dr. Elmer answers some frequently asked questions about respiratory illnesses.

How Can I Tell Which Sickness I Have?

For many, it’s hard to determine which illness they have when they experience respiratory symptoms. What matters most is not which virus you have but rather the care steps you take.

For otherwise-healthy people, the treatment is “chicken soup and the sofa.” In other words, the general guidance is to take care of yourself and watch for worsening symptoms.

Other home care measures include staying hydrated and taking over-the-counter fever-reducing medications as needed.

The guidance does vary for COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends isolating for a period of at least five days if you test positive, regardless of symptoms. Individuals should also mask for 10 days after testing positive.

When Should I Seek Care?

In general, seek care if you have symptoms that concern you, if your fever isn’t going away after three days, or if you’re short of breath.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek emergency care:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

What’s the Deal with COVID-19 Right Now?

As previously stated, COVID-19 is once again on the rise. According to the CDC, HV.1 is the variant responsible for most cases right now.

The Wisconsin Wastewater Monitoring Program, which tests samples of wastewater across the state to track levels of COVID-19, illustrates the uptick in COVID-19 cases. The latest data shows that the communities ThedaCare serves are seeing either very high or high levels of the illness.

The good news is that COVID-19 is less deadly than it once was, and fewer people are becoming seriously ill with the disease. The bad news is that it’s more contagious.

COVID-19 is tricky to track right now, because health care systems aren’t testing as many people. Individuals tend to either test at home or forgo testing altogether.

Even though COVID-19 is less deadly, hospitalizations in Wisconsin have increased about 10% in recent weeks. This is on par with the rest of the country. COVID-19 still kills more people annually than flu and other illnesses.

Updated vaccines became available in recent months, but many people have not gotten vaccinated. As of late October, just 7% of U.S. adults and 2% of children had gotten the new shot.

What About Other Respiratory Illnesses?

For the past three years, COVID-19 has been the dominant force. Think of it as the bully among the pack of respiratory illnesses. It’s muscled out the other players such as flu, RSV, and rhinoviruses.

Viruses, though, evolve. So, we’re seeing other illnesses make a resurgence. That’s why last year we saw a “tripledemic,” in which flu, COVID-19, and RSV converged and swamped hospitals for a period of time. Some experts predict a repeat could be in store for the 2023-24 respiratory season.

What Do I Need to Know About RSV?

Most people who contract RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, typically experience mild, cold-like symptoms. Certain groups, however, are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill. Those include babies 12 months and younger — especially premature infants, some older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Good news came this year with the federal approval of RSV vaccines for older adults and pregnant people, as well as Nirsevimab, a monoclonal antibody that can protect infants. While the vaccines are available now for older adults and pregnant people, Nirsevimab is in short supply and isn’t available for most infants who are eligible to receive it.

The CDC recommends one dose the RSV vaccine Abrysvo during RSV season for people who are 32 through 36 weeks pregnant. That means pregnant people should receive the RSV vaccine from September through January so that their babies are protected against severe RSV disease at birth.

To prevent severe RSV disease in infants, experts recommend either maternal RSV vaccination or infant immunization with RSV monoclonal antibody. Most infants will not need both, according to the CDC.

Adults ages 60 and older should talk to their doctor about whether the RSV vaccine is right for them. Those who are pregnant should ask their doctor when they should receive their Abrysvo dose.

The CDC recommends everyday steps people can take to prevent the spread of RSV and other respiratory illnesses.

How Can I Avoid Getting Sick?

Stay up to date on vaccines. It’s not too late to get flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Getting immunized reduces your chances of contracting these illnesses. While you can still catch the flu or COVID-19 even if you’re vaccinated, getting these shots can help protect you from serious illness. Getting vaccinated also protects our vulnerable friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

If you’re sick, stay home. Take care of yourself and others. Beyond that, wash your hands, stay hydrated and well rested, and eat a balanced diet.

Taking simple precautions can go a long way in ensuring you and those around you will stay well this season.

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Tags: Abrysvo colds COVID-19 flu Nirsevimab RSV tripledemic vaccination

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