It hit Stephanie Sipe’s oldest kid first. Twelve hours later, Sipe and the rest of her family were down with the worst gut-wrenching stomach bug Sipe can remember.
“It spread through like a wildfire,” says the 42-year-old shop owner from Rock Hill, S.C. “It was ugly. I haven’t been that sick in my entire life — and that includes pregnancy and morning sickness.”
Winter’s here, heralding the season of sickness. While frigid temperatures and howling winds may seem to be the obvious culprits, studies have shown that cold weather, in and of itself, doesn’t make you sick. The problem, experts say, is that the grim weather being felt around much of the country drives us indoors. And the closer people are crammed together, the easier it is to spread the germs that are causing this year’s most common winter ills: the flu, colds and the nasty group of bugs known as norovirus.
Some viruses have come up with wintertime adaptations that make them especially good at sneaking past natural defenses. Scientists have learned that when the weather gets cold, flu viruses develop a hard outer shell that allows them to more efficiently float on air currents and then down into nasal passages. Like the covering on an M&M candy, scientists say, the coating dissolves when it enters the respiratory system.
But when it comes to the flu, there's some good news. This year’s vaccine appears to be a better match than last year’s to the strains of flu circulating around the country, says Dr. Neil Fishman, an infectious disease specialist and an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
“It’s a good sign that flu season hasn’t started yet,” says Dr. William Pasculle, director of clinical microbiology and a professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “That tends to mean that it will be a mild year.”
But there are no guarantees, Pasculle is quick to add. Even with a slow start, the season could take off — and for many people, it's a good idea to get a flu shot if they haven't already, experts say. The shot is especially recommended for children older than six months, pregnant women, people older than 50, health care workers, those with certain chronic health conditions like asthma and people who care for babies less than six months old.
While about 70 percent of those in the U.S. meet the suggested criteria for getting a flu shot, only about 30 percent say they've gotten a flu vaccine this year, according to report released earlier this month by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
Dr. Larry Baraff, associate director of the Emergency Medicine Center at the Ronald Reagan University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center, urges people to consider the dangers associated with the flu. More than 35,000 people in the U.S. die each year as a result of influenza, he says.
While there are some antiviral medications out there to treat the flu once you’ve got it, the drugs may be losing their effectiveness. A recent advisory from the CDC warned that certain strains of the flu appeared to be developing a resistance to one of the antiviral medications — Tamiflu. This may be even worse than it sounds, Fishman says, explaining that Tamiflu has also been used to treat the avian flu.
Even if you manage to evade the flu, you may not make it through winter unscathed. There are plenty of other viruses out there that can make your life miserable, says Pasculle. Winter’s when people are most likely to be hit by the illness that felled the Sipe family — norovirus infection.
Norovirus is the name given to a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis, more commonly known as the stomach flu, in people.
The bug is highly transmissible. And “it doesn’t die rapidly in the environment,” Pasculle says. “It’s not unusual for it to run right through a house. One child brings it home from daycare and then mom and dad get it … and … yadda, yadda, yadda.”
And then there’s the common cold. It’s supposed to last only three to five days, but sometimes the hacking and dribbling can go on for weeks.
That’s not because the virus is still active, Fishman says. Rather, it’s because the immune system has gotten too revved up. The inflammation designed to kill germs did its job, but your body is still attacking the now non-existent foe.
The remaining immune response may be so out of whack that people develop an asthma-like condition.
In general, experts say, people should see a doctor if two weeks have gone by and they're still experiencing symptoms.
“First, you have to make sure you haven’t developed a bacterial infection,” Fishman says. “In a small number of cases people develop a bacterial infection that can turn into pneumonia. You would almost always have a fever, though, if it’s bacterial.”
And if you’re still hacking, but have no fever, you should see the doctor to get medication to quiet your immune system down. Usually this will involve a course of inhaled steroids, says Fishman.
“These help control local inflammation,” he says, adding that inhaled steroids aren’t associated with any of the serious side effects that can come with orally administered steroids.
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.