Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Flu fears pack emergency room

Published in the American Journal

Fears of coming down with the flu have sent patients to Maine Medical Center’s emergency room in large numbers over the past two weeks. Many of them do not actually have the flu, though, and the hospital is suggesting people who are worried should call their regular doctors before visiting the ER.

Maine Med has seen “a tremendous number of adults and children coming in with flu-like symptoms,” said Dr. Michael Gibbs, the hospital’s head of emergency medicine.

Traffic has been up about 20 percent over the normal number of visits.

The hospital has been sending doctors and nurses from other departments to help at the ER.

“We’re going to be dealing with this for a couple of months,” said hospital spokeswoman Abby Greenfield.

Most of the patients do not have influenza itself. “There are a lot of other viruses that can cause flu-like symptoms,” Gibbs said.

“Any viral infection can be serious,” he said. “But (it) also depends on who has the infection.”

“Some people need to be concerned even if it’s not” technically the flu, including young children, the elderly and people with existing medical conditions.

Gibbs suggests calling your family doctor before coming to the emergency room. You may be able to stay home, or get some medication prescribed or recommended over the phone.

He also noted the risk of getting sick in the emergency room: If you’re there with a lot of sick people, you could catch something from them. Patients at Maine Med’s ER are wearing masks now, to reduce that risk.

If your doctor recommends you go to the ER, he or she will be able to call ahead to let emergency room staff know you’re coming, and to give them your full medical history, which can help them treat you faster and better.

People who are more likely to have their doctors suggest a visit to the hospital are those with “significant severe respiratory symptoms,” such as shortness of breath, or with persistent vomiting or a fever that won’t go away, Gibbs said.

Also, very small children, adults over age 65, or people with pre-existing medical conditions that may weaken their ability to fight disease should be prepared go to the hospital.

To prevent getting infected, doctors recommend you wash your hands. Contact with others’ hands, or things they have touched, can transmit the flu and other diseases.

Drink fluids. Staying hydrated helps your immune system stay strong. And stay rested.