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January 22, 2013 > Flu is Not the Only Bug Making People Sick These Days

Flu is Not the Only Bug Making People Sick These Days

Petussis and Norovirus are Also Causing Health Problems

While the country faces an influenza epidemic, two other highly contagious bugs are also making people sick. Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is widespread in 48 states, including California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But the norovirus is rearing its ugly head as well. A new strain of the virus detected last year is now the leading cause of norovirus outbreaks in the U.S., according to the CDC. In addition, pertussis, also known as whooping cough, continues to pose a threat, particularly to babies and small children.

"Until now we have actually been seeing more norovirus and whooping cough than the flu," said Dr. Dianne Martin, a member of the Washington Hospital medical staff who specializes in internal medicine and infectious disease. "We are typically six to eight weeks behind the East Coast. Last Friday the CDC announced that the flu is now widespread in California. Most years the flu peaks in late February, so it's hitting the state earlier than usual."

She said there is still time to get a flu vaccination, the single best way to prevent the contagious respiratory disease. Anyone over the age of six months should get a flu shot, she added.

The flu shot contains three seasonal flu viruses that cause the body to build up antibodies capable of fighting off those strains. The viruses are inactivated or killed, so you can't get the flu from a flu shot, according to the CDC.

The flu is spread by droplets that enter the air when infected people talk, cough, or sneeze. Dr. Martin said it's important to wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading germs and keep hand sanitizers in your home, car, and at work. If you do get sick, cough into a tissue or the crook of your arm and stay home until you feel better, she added.

Norovirus Attacks the Stomach

The norovirus is a contagious disease that causes the stomach and intestines to become inflamed, resulting in diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Symptoms can also include fever, headache and body aches.

"Sometimes people confuse it with the flu because of the nausea and body aches," Dr. Martin said. "While the flu is a respiratory illness, the norovirus attacks the stomach and intestines. The norovirus is most often seen in group living situations like nursing homes. Outbreaks have also occurred in hotels and on cruise ships."

According to the CDC, the Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis and food-borne disease outbreaks in the U.S., causing about 21 million illnesses each year.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for the norovirus. The best way to prevent the spread of the disease is to wash your hands with soap and water, particularly after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before handling food.

"Hand sanitizers aren't effective on the norovirus, so you need to wash your hands," Dr. Martin added. "It's important to follow some simple precautions in order to prevent the spread of the norovirus."

Other precautions include washing fruits and vegetables and being sure to thoroughly cook seafood. If you have the norovirus, you should not prepare food or care for others, according to the CDC.

Pertussis Can be Prevented with a Vaccine

Pertussis or whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can cause violent, uncontrolled coughing, making it hard to breathe. After a coughing fit, a person infected with pertussis often needs to take a deep breath, which results in a whooping sound. Whooping cough most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal.

Fortunately, pertussis can be prevented with a vaccine. After a whooping cough epidemic hit California in 2010, with more than 9,000 cases reported that year and 10 infant deaths, there was a push to revaccinate teens and adults.

"The whooping cough vaccine wears off, so you need to get a booster shot," Dr. Martin explained. "Children should get five doses of the DTaP vaccine before they reach age 7. The booster shot for adolescents and adults comes in the form of a Tdap, which also vaccinates against tetanus and diphtheria."

Flu and pertussis vaccinations are available at Washington Urgent Care. The clinic is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and no appointment is needed.

For more information about the flu, visit The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has good information about the flu as well as the norovirus and pertussis at To find out how to get flu and pertussis vaccinations, call Washington Hospital's Health Connection hotline at (800) 963-7070. To learn about upcoming Washington Hospital classes and seminars that can help you stay healthy, visit

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