Maybe you’ve got a gunky, clogged up feeling in your throat. Runny nose. Fever. Or perhaps you’ve spent a couple nights in a steamy bathroom with a baby who barks like a seal.
Call it a cold, croup or its fancy name, parainfluenza. This virus pays a visit during the spring and fall, before the “real” flu hits, and doctors say they’re seeing plenty of it.
”Older people get laryngitis. Kids get croup,” said Dr. Karen Lewis, a pediatrician and medical director for the state Department of Health Services. “Sometimes they have to visit the emergency room for it.”
Allergy specialists are getting swamped, too, thanks to a late pollen season and the Valley’s worsening air quality. Fallout from last month’s California wildfires only made a bad situation worse.
“It certainly has been a busy four to six weeks,” said Dr. Mark Rose, an allergy specialist with the Arizona Asthma and Allergy Institute. “We have patients with asthma that’s brought on by pollution.”
Allergy sufferers are more prone to fall ill from viruses, including the paraflu.
“It’s been a delayed pollen season for a lot of people,” Rose said. “And if you get a virus, you’re more inclined to have that develop into a sinus infection.”
Dr. Norm Saba, chairman of pediatrics at Banner Desert Children’s Hospital, said he’s seeing a lot of croup, parainfluenza and other upper-respiratory infections, often exacerbated by air pollution and allergies.
The parainfluenza virus can cause serious illnesses in babies or people with compromised immune systems. Two-year-old Zach Shumway had trouble breathing a few weeks ago and the barking that characterizes croupy cough. He’s the youngest of five and his mother, Lynn, knew just what to do.
“We spent most of the night in the bathroom with the shower going,” she said.
The next day, when he was still struggling, Zach’s pediatrician gave him a steroid shot and that opened up his airway. The Tempe toddler has been fine since.
Unlike influenza, there’s no vaccine to prevent the paraflu virus. But experts say good old-fashioned hygiene can help slow the spread: lots of hand-washing, coughing into your sleeve and staying home if you’re ill.
For the most part, parainfluenza pales in comparison to influenza, which hasn’t yet arrived in Arizona but has been reported in neighboring California, Nevada and Utah.
Lewis encourages people to get flu shots while there’s an ample supply. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have broadened recommendations for those who should get vaccinated, and it now includes about 75 percent of the population, she said.
“The problem is, most people do not appreciate how bad influenza is and how good the vaccine is,” Lewis said.
“People also expect it to protect them from everything,” she said. So if they get a cold or any other virus after getting a flu shot, they claim the vaccine didn’t work.
Another myth is that flu shots can cause the flu, Lewis said, but since it’s a dose of a dead virus, it can’t.
“They think anything that happens after the shot, whether it’s a week or two months later, is caused by the shot.”
Last year, the first reported influenza case came in November — an East Valley woman in her 80s.
Up to 20 percent of people get the flu annually in Arizona, more than 4,000 are hospitalized and 700 people die.
“We’ve had very mild seasons the last few years,” Lewis said, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a humdinger this year.”
Who should get a flu shot
• Children 6 months to 5 years
• Pregnant women
• People 50 years and older
• People with chronic health conditions
• Nursing home residents
• Health care workers
• Those who live with or care for people at high risk for complications from the flu
• To find the flu shot location nearest you, go to www.cir.org or call Community Information and Referral at (602) 263-8856 or (800) 352-3792.