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Rising Respiratory Illnesses: How to Prevent

M3 Global Newsdesk Jan 21, 2024

Stay informed about concerning trends in respiratory illnesses, focusing on the significance of vaccinations and proactive at-home prevention methods. Refer to the full article for detailed insights and recommendations.

Key takeaways

  1. The CDC is reporting rising rates of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, RSV, and the flu.
  2. Doctors say the rise is concerning and encourage infection prevention tactics like disinfecting surfaces and social distancing when sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports rising rates of respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, RSV, and the flu. The upward trajectory continues the trends from earlier this winter, which has already prompted concern. Now, some doctors say the situation is even more critical—but not beyond repair.

“The situation is as I expected: getting worse. And I think it will continue to worsen in light of recent holiday gatherings and travel,” says Marc Watkins, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Kroger Health. “It’s not too late to turn this trend around, though.”

“The amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) causing people to seek healthcare is elevated or increasing across most areas of the country,” the CDC wrote on December 29, 2023.[1]

To stop the climb, Dr. Watkins encourages all eligible groups to get vaccinated against COVID-19, RSV, and the flu. Encouraging flu shots is especially important as Flu A (H1N1), which is the predominant flu virus in circulation, is causing a rise in infection rates and hospitalisations, Dr. Watkins says.

“We’re currently seeing multiple indicators of influenza activity, such as test positivity, ER visits, and elevated rates of hospitalisation that continue to increase,” Dr. Watkins says. “This is most worrisome to me because high rates of ER visits and hospitalisation divert resources from other areas of healthcare and put others at risk.”

According to preliminary estimates from the CDC, in 2023, United States vaccination rates were behind those from previous years.[2]

At-home prevention tactics

To bring down trends and decrease your patients’ risks of contracting a respiratory virus, talk to them about at-home prevention tactics. Dr. Watkins recommends sending people home with three simple tips:

  1. Cover coughs (and sneezes.)
  2. Clean and disinfect surfaces (including door knobs, desks, or countertops).
  3. Stay home from work or school if you're feeling sick.

People who experience hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, like dry cough, muscle aches, fever, or chills, or who have had a recent exposure, can take an at-home COVID-19 test. Doctors may also consider testing patients for flu or RSV if they are symptomatic and in a vulnerable group, Dr. Watkins says. However, these tests are not always productive, he adds.

“It’s impractical to test everyone who has symptoms of a cold—such as cough, runny nose, sneezing, or a fever,” Dr. Watkins says. “There are many viruses other than flu, RSV, and COVID that can cause these kinds of symptoms. For example, adenovirus and rhinovirus are common culprits.”

When to encourage your patients to make an appointment

People who have weakened immune systems and/or chronic diseases like diabetes or heart conditions should reach out to a doctor if they contract COVID-19, RSV, or the flu, as they may be more vulnerable to severe outcomes, Dr. Watkins says. People who are not otherwise vulnerable should first stay away from others, drink plenty of fluids, and prioritise rest, he adds. In most of these cases, the virus should go away in about ten days, he says. 

Talk to your patients about their risk level to help them decide when or if they should seek medical attention. Be sure to listen to concerns from patients not flagged as vulnerable as outlying scenarios can occur.   

What this means for you

Healthcare experts should encourage infection prevention tactics, including ongoing vaccinations, due to rising rates of respiratory illness.


This story is contributed by Claire Wolters and is a part of our Global Content Initiative, where we feature selected stories from our Global network which we believe would be most useful and informative to our doctor members.

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