Health & Fitness

Allergies up in mild weather; flu season muted so far

Tribune

Allergies have been bad, but the flu season hasn’t really taken off in the winter that has melted into record-breaking high temperatures.

“The flu is definitely here, but it’s a much more mild season than it was last year,” said Adrienne Byrne-Lutz, director of the Sedgwick County Health Department.

Most years, flu cases spike in January or early February, said physician Maggie Hagan, infectious disease specialist and director of infection prevention at Via Christi. But the flu season has amounted to just 13 cases so far at the three Via Christi campuses in Wichita, starting in mid-January.

Wesley Medical Center had 42 cases this January, compared to 472 last year.

“We’re seeing a lot of influenza-like illnesses,” Byrne-Lutz said, but in most cases doctors are treating the symptoms and not sending labwork to the state to confirm whether or not the illnesses are the flu.

Meanwhile, Van Strickland, a Wichita physician who specializes in allergies, has been seeing more patients this year, and suspects that the elm, cedar, maple and mold allergies that are being detected in Oklahoma are blowing their way into Kansas. (He used to test for allergies here, and still has the equipment to do it, but years ago lost county financing to carry it out.)

The pollen is out and blowing around early because of the mild weather, and “there’s mold because if it’s not freezing, the molds are busy getting rid of the grass and leaves,” Strickland said.

Some of the allergies are not simply early for this year but are part of a larger trend making more people sicker in more places.

“Pollen counts and mold counts and things are marching north,” Strickland said. “Even Alaska’s getting more allergies, as warmer weather is marching south to north and changing the growth of plants and lots of other things.”

But while the weather directly affects outdoor allergies, it’s not as clear-cut with the flu, Hagan said.

Sometimes we have mild winters and a bad flu season. So there’s not a direct correlation.

Wichita physician Maggie Hagan

“Sometimes we have mild winters and a bad flu season. So there’s not a direct correlation,” she said.

But “the flu virus and some other respiratory viruses don’t perpetuate in warm and humid air. They tend to perpetuate better in dry and cold air in terms of how they live outside the body and how they spread. I think the more important factor is when it’s cold, people tend to be inside more, and people are around other people in closer connection,” making it easier to spread illness.

One reason for decreased flu this year could be immunizations, Hagan said. While the flu shot last year did not match the flu virus that was circulating, this year it seems that the viruses match, Hagan said. And there’s still time to get the flu shot, Byrne-Lutz said, as the flu season has not neared a peak yet.

There’s also a respiratory virus going around causing relatively mild symptoms, including a cough, and it can hang on for weeks, Hagan said. People are catching cold viruses, too.

For allergy symptoms, Strickland tells people to flush their nose with salt water, use a steroid nasal spray such as Flonase, which is now available over the counter, and take an antihistamine such as Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra, also available over the counter. If the symptoms don’t improve, it’s time to see a doctor for something stronger, he said.

Annie Calovich: 316-268-6596, @anniecalovich

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