Whooping Cough, Influenza Spreading in the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

It’s cold and flu season in the Flathead, and so far county health officials have confirmed influenza and a higher-than-usual rate of whooping cough cases throughout the valley.

“In general, this time of year we see more illness because people are indoors more” and in contact with each other more frequently, said Community Health Director Jody White of the Flathead City-County Health Department.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s currently circulating, what symptoms to watch for and some prevention tips from local health officials.

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough is an upper respiratory bacterial infection that begins with symptoms similar to a common cold, but the coughing can get so bad after 10 to 14 days that the person may vomit or pass out.

According to White, the state confirmed 21 cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, last week in the Flathead, which is considerably higher when compared to previous years.

The total could also be higher than 21, White noted, because some people are given presumptive care without testing, and the state only counts lab-confirmed cases.

This year’s numbers are unusual because typically whooping cough affects roughly 10 people a year, she said, and those people are usually part of a close group, such as a family.

“This is different in that we have different groups of people in that 21,” White said.

Symptoms of whooping cough include a persistent cough, one that goes beyond normal typical episodes and can cause vomiting.

Not everyone gets the characteristic “whoop” noise with pertussis, which is the sound a person makes trying to steal a breath between coughs, White said.

If you think you’ve got whooping cough, be sure to call your medical provider and alert them before walking into the waiting room, White said. Most facilities have special instructions for pertussis patients, which could include wearing a mask or coming in through a different entrance.

The Flu (Influenza)

So far, there have been four lab-confirmed cases of influenza in Flathead County, White said.

The strains match up with what has been circulating nationally, she said, which is good news for those who have already gotten their flu shot.

“Nationwide, the tests show that the strains that are circulating are covered by the vaccine this year,” White said.

While many people will get sick for a day or two and blame it on the flu, White said contracting influenza is much more involved than being out of commission for 24 or 48 hours.

A typical battle with influenza can keep a person out of work or school for a week to 10 days, she said, and that person will feel worse than having a typical cold or stomach bug.

Influenza symptoms include fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and, especially in children, stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Most people experience these symptoms one to three days after being infected, and complications can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and dehydration, according to the health department.

Stay Healthy or Stay Home

Valley residents can avoid getting sick first and foremost through consistent hand washing, White said, as well as not sharing cups or drinks with people who might be sick, including family members.

Covering your cough is also an effective way to keep from spreading illness, she said, since influenza is typically spread through coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread by touching something with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose.

Anyone with a fever or a diagnosed illness should not go to work or school, White said. So far, all of the influenza cases in the Flathead have been in people who are 50 years old or younger, which typically comprises the working age population.

There’s also still time to get your flu shots.

“It’s not too late; we’re just starting to see the disease circulating in the county,” White said. “If you don’t want to miss two weeks of work it’d be a good idea to get your flu shot.”

A pertussis containing vaccine is also available for people ages 2 months old to 64 years old, White said.

Appointments are necessary at the county’s Community Health Center clinic and can be made by calling 751-8113.

For more information, visit the Flathead City-County Health Department’s website at www.flathead.mt.gov/health, the state Department of Health and Human Services website at www.dphhs.mt.gov or the national Center for Disease Control website at www.cdc.gov.

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