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Questions about respiratory virus season? A Sunnybrook family doctor is here to help

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It’s that time of year again, when runny noses, scratchy throats, and nagging coughs wreak havoc on people of all ages and lead to a spike in visits to the doctor’s office.

With so many viruses circulating, from the common cold to influenza or – you guessed it — COVID-19, many people are wondering how to stay healthy.

Dr. Alison Culbert is a physician with Sunnybrook’s Academic Family Health Team, where she treats patients, including older adults with complex chronic care needs, through many of life’s ups and downs such as seasonal illnesses.

Dr. Culbert spoke to Your Health Matters about how to stay healthy this respiratory virus season.

Respiratory virus season is in full swing. What are you noticing among the patients you treat?

We are definitely seeing an increase in respiratory illnesses in all ages. We have had more calls to the office with our patients looking for advice about what they should do because they are feeling sick or their kids or loved ones are sick.

And we are also seeing an increase in the number of patients that we are bringing in to be seen in the clinic for acute respiratory illnesses.

What reminders can you offer to people about how to stay healthy during respiratory virus season?

The general things I usually recommend are to try to make sure you are getting enough sleep, that you are eating well, and that you make time for physical activity. And it is always a good idea to wash your hands frequently and try to avoid touching your face, especially at this time of year. I also encourage people to take advantage of the vaccines available to them for COVID-19 and influenza.

What should people do if they are experiencing common cold, flu or COVID symptoms such as cough or fever?

Number one is please stay home and try to use available over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen to manage symptoms like fever, chills, or aches. Resting and staying well hydrated is also important. The vast majority of people will get better within a few days but if they don’t, they should call their healthcare provider for advice and help deciding if it’s time to make an appointment.

This year, health officials are spreading the word that it’s both safe and convenient to get a COVID vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same visit. What advice do you have about how folks should plan to get their vaccines?

Certainly from a convenience perspective, it makes sense to get the flu and COVID-19 vaccines together. We encourage people to get one in each arm. And many people have already had a flu shot or COVID vaccine before, so they can predict how they will feel based on their past experience. Some people might notice a sore arm, but the vast majority of people won’t experience too many side effects.

I often tell people to plan to get their vaccines on a day when they don’t have anything really important to do the next day, just in case they feel a little bit achy afterwards. But most people tolerate getting both vaccines at the same time without any issues.

What would you say to people who might be wondering if they need a COVID-19 vaccine now that the virus is no longer considered a global public health emergency?

It’s important to remember that although the vast majority of people with COVID will recover well, we continue to see those people who get sicker than other individuals and end up experiencing long COVID symptoms. So given that we have a safe and effective vaccine against this virus, I recommend taking advantage of it.

What about people who might think, ‘I hardly ever get the flu so I don’t need to get a flu shot’? What would you say to them?

True influenza usually makes you feel quite unwell with symptoms like fever and body aches, so anything you can do to avoid that is a good idea. If you do end up with the flu and you are vaccinated, chances are the illness will be far less severe.

But getting the flu shot isn’t just about protecting yourself. There is also a benefit to getting the flu vaccine to help protect those around you such as young children, vulnerable seniors, or immunocompromised friends or family, for instance, someone going through chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

I’d like to ask you about older adults in particular because this year there are more vaccinations available to them: COVID, influenza, pneumococcal, and — for the first time for people over 60 — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccines. What can you tell us about RSV and why this new vaccine is being offered to older adults?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common virus that affects both young children and older adults. It is highly contagious. While it causes symptoms similar to a common cold in most people, in more vulnerable populations it can cause severe illness such as bronchiolitis, which is inflammation of the small airwaves of the lungs. It can also cause pneumonia.

The new RSV vaccine has been shown to be effective in preventing lower respiratory tract infections the virus can cause in adults over the age of 60.

My understanding is that the recommendation is adults over age 60 with at least one underlying health condition — such as congestive heart failure, diabetes, or liver and kidney disease — should consider getting the RSV vaccine.

It is not available at primary care offices at this time, but is available in some pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription.

In addition, the new RSV vaccine is not publicly funded in Ontario at this time except for adults over age 60 living in long-term care homes. This means patients would have to pay for it out of pocket unless they have a private drug plan that will cover the cost.

But if people are able to get the vaccine, it is definitely worthwhile and hopefully will help cut down on the number of patients getting this infection and ending up in hospital.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would encourage people to take advantage of any of the vaccines they might be able to access in order to help prevent unnecessary illness.

We know that emergency departments are still operating at full capacity and patients seeking care are often experiencing long wait times. If there is anything people can do to lower their risk of having a severe respiratory illness this season, I hope they will consider it.

Vaccines are available through primary care providers, pharmacies, and public health clinics, so there are lots of ways to get your COVID and flu vaccine.

About the author

Idella Sturino

Idella Sturino is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook. She has a passion for storytelling and public engagement and brings two decades' worth of expertise as a former journalist to the role.