Health care providers advise being cautious about illness as the holidays approach

Home for the holidays?

Amid a seasonal flurry of viruses that doctors say has arrived early and may stay late, there are simple ways to improve your chances of staying healthy.

Basic health precautions — wearing a mask when you’re in large groups of people, washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick — are important to keep in mind, especially during holiday gatherings.

“If it’s a big party and you don’t know many of the people, maybe consider not wearing a mask and trying to socially distance,” said Dr. Brian Lamb, an internal medicine physician at Allegheny Health Network. “You don’t want to have 50 people in a 25-square-foot room. If you’re having a holiday party, can you keep people at least a little distance apart so they’re not on top of each other?”

In recent months, doctors and emergency rooms have been seeing a steady increase in people coming in sick with flu, RSV, covid and other upper respiratory illnesses.

“I call it the perfect storm of upper respiratory viruses. We’re just seeing everything this year,” Lamb said. “This is the first year that we’ve taken off our masks really widely in public places and the restrictions have been lifted, so we’re seeing a lot of the typical spread of respiratory viruses.”

Covid numbers are starting to rise again in Pennsylvania, with about 1,935 new covid cases per week and a total of 13,535 new cases in the past seven days, according to a state report released this week. That’s about a 25 percent increase from a month ago, when the state averaged 1,500 new cases a day, but a sharp drop — more than 75 percent — from a year ago, when there were more than 8,300 new cases a week.

Dr. Joe Suyama, chief of emergency services at UPMC Magee-Women’s Hospital in Oakland, added that the flu and RSV appeared earlier in the season this year, leading to an influx of cases.

“There is a bit of a plateau, but with each passing week we are seeing a steady increase in the number of flu cases,” he said. “After Thanksgiving, we saw an increase in testing as well as the number of covid and flu positives. Unfortunately, as cyclical as these viral waves are, we expect that regrouping, especially in people who are mildly symptomatic, could cause another spike in cases.

There’s still time to get a flu shot, Suyama added.

“Just because we’re in the heart of flu season doesn’t mean it’s too late to get a flu shot,” he said. “(It’s) anything you can do to protect yourself from disease, especially if you’re at high risk of disease progression.”

Dr. Carol Fox, chief medical officer at Excela Health, said this time of year is often a busy one for respiratory illnesses. She also stressed that people should get flu and covid shots if they haven’t already.

“Once it gets colder and the weather gets worse, people can’t really do as much outdoors,” she said. “When you’re in close proximity to people, generally speaking, we tend to see more respiratory illnesses in the winter. Not because infections like colds, but because you’re in closer contact (with) people.”

Pediatric care

As young children and teens stay home for the holidays, Cynthia Chu, pediatric nurse practitioner at Pediatric Associates of Westmoreland, advises families to keep health precautions in mind. Her office has been busier in recent weeks with sick children, she said.

“I think in the last few years with covid everyone was very, very cautious and we all missed a lot,” she said. “This year we’re going back more to the way things were pre-Covid, when people aren’t as worried about a runny nose or a cough, which can be scary, especially for our most vulnerable children, especially children with chronic illnesses.”

If someone in the family is sick with cold symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, cough, fever, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, it’s best to stay home, she said.

“Even if it means missing the things they have planned,” she said, “the best way to protect your family and other people is to stay home if you’re not feeling well.”

Not all illnesses require an emergency room visit, she added.

“The things we (pediatricians) can see are normal coughs and colds, fevers, mild gastrointestinal issues or stomach problems, but the things that would warrant a trip to the emergency room would be any kind of dehydration or cough that includes difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath.”

Julia Maruca is a Tribune-Review contributor. Julia can be reached at [email protected]

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