A perfect storm of illnesses this season has doctors wading through a variety of ailments as patients pack waiting rooms, desperate to ease the aches of fever and the pain of sinus pressure.
The late-appearing influenza season in Arizona has collided with a rash of upper respiratory infections and the beginning of the spring allergy season.
The swarm of sicknesses has left patients confused about what, exactly, they’ve come down with, doctors said. By and large, physicians said they are seeing viral infections clogging the nose and chest, accompanied by coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and sometimes the body aches and chills of fever.
"What we’ve been seeing in just the last few weeks has been this really wicked cold that isn’t just resolving on its own," said Dr. Andrew Carroll, a family practice physician in Chandler. Carroll said he and his whole family are still battling the same cold symptoms. "It just seems to be affecting so many people all at once. It’s just a very strong illness right now."
This is the season to be sick, doctors said, but prolonged wet and cold weather in the Valley may have made matters worse.
People stay inside to avoid the rain and chill outside, increasing their exposure to others coughing and sneezing from a cold. It’s likely people are picking up viruses from saliva or mucus in the air or on surfaces at work, school or home, said Dr. Karen Lewis, medical director at the Arizona Department of Health Services.
"You’re unlikely to get (the same) cold again. Unfortunately, there’s thousands of those little microbes out there," Lewis said. "Mother nature is very savvy and is always coming up with a new way that a disease can be caused."
Doctors said patients are flocking to them with one ailment, only to be replaced by another surge of patients with a different illness.
About three weeks ago, bronchitis seemed to be the most prevalent sickness, Carroll said. Today, viral infections, allergies and the flu have infiltrated households with symptoms so similar, family members are not sure what they have or what medicine to take.
During the past three weeks, the state health department has recorded a steady rise in the number of laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, which typically appears in children.
As of Monday, the state reported 139 new cases of the flu for a total of 587 for the season. RSV cases climbed by 215 for a total of 1,592.
When 50-year-old Jolene Romero came down with nasal congestion, a scratchy throat and overwhelming fatigue two days ago, the Ahwatukee Foothills resident went to the doctor Tuesday morning to make sure she didn’t need antibiotics.
"I thought I had a cold, but you never can tell because so many symptoms are the same," she said. "I have a grandbaby and wanted to make sure I was not contagious to him, and for work purposes."
Dr. Michelle May diagnosed Romero with a cold and recommended extra fluids, overthe-counter decongestants and good hand-washing.
"There’s just no medicine to cure the common cold," said May, a family practice physician. "It’s very challenging because people want to feel better, but it’s important not to push the doctor to give antibiotics because they don’t help (against viral infections) and make matters worse by killing off bacteria that is supposed to be there."
To guard against drug resistance, many doctors are carefully screening symptoms to decide if patients have a viral or bacterial infection, which can be treated with antibiotics. Some patients assume antibiotics are the answer, no matter what their condition.
"It’s more time-consuming to talk someone out of an antibiotic, but it’s worth it," May said.
Allergies may masquerade as cold symptoms, especially if there is no fever, she said, although a patient can have a cold without getting a fever. Viral infections are usually to blame for common cold symptoms. But sometimes a bacterial infection will set in after a virus has weakened the body’s defenses.
A fever can be the sign of a secondary bacterial infection when it occurs after cold symptoms are under way, May said.
Tips for cold symptoms
• Increase fluids and rest.
• Practice good hand washing to minimize spreading the cold.
• Try over-the-counter medicines, including a decongestant for nasal congestion, and Tylenol or ibuprofen for headache, body aches or sore throat.
When to see the doctor:
• Cold symptoms are not helped by over-the-counter medicines or last longer than a week.
• Adult fever of more than 101 degrees lasts more than 24 to 48 hours.
• Influenza is suspected because fever has reached 103 to 104 degrees with severe body aches. Antiviral drugs are effective within 48 hours of onset of flu symptoms.
Source: Dr. Michelle May, a family practice physician in Ahwatukee Foothills