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Beyond the Flu and Bird Flu

Find out what's really ailing you this cold and flu season.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Turn on the evening news and you are bound to hear about the bird flu and how it's en route to the U.S., and when the anchorman is not forecasting such a pandemic, it's the regular flu that ends up in the spotlight. But every year, a legion of nameless, faceless germy villains stalk children and adults, wreaking plenty of havoc on our respiratory tract. An all-points bulletin rarely goes out on these throat thugs, but doctors say they have rap sheets as long as winter itself.

"I think the general concept that people have when they get sick in winter is that they have the flu or a cold, and you'll often hear, 'Why did I get this? I got the flu vaccine.' [But] they don't recognize that there are a lot of other things that look just like the flu," says germ detective Edward Walsh, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Rochester and faculty member of the university's infectious disease unit. "If the public only thinks that the flu is what they need to be protected against, there is not going to be a public desire to have vaccines for other viruses, and if there is no demand, companies won't bother to make them."

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The best way to prevent and treat such respiratory tract invaders as metapneumovirus, coronaviruses, Haemophilus influenzae, parainfluenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is to recognize them as they are -- armed and dangerous. That's why WebMD put together a "Most Wanted" list of the stealth bugs that may be hijacking your health.

RSV

You may think it's the flu, when, really, RSV is responsible. In a paper published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers estimated that the bug may be responsible for more than 177,500 hospitalizations of adults each year, and they predict that 14,000 elderly and high-risk adults die annually from an RSV infection. What's more, the CDC presented estimates that 51,000 to 82,000 hospitalizations occur yearly in the U.S. in young children due to RSV-related bronchiolitis (inflammation in the small air passageways of the lungs) or lower respiratory tract infection (such as pneumonia). Those with certain pre-existing medical conditions would be more vulnerable to an infection and at higher risk for death. Yes, this low-life preys on kids and the elderly the most, leaving its calling card of bronchitis and pneumonia in the youngest of folks. RSV infection occurs between November and April, although there may be seasonal variation in different regions of the country.

Like the flu, RSV is basically a respiratory illness. Its effects can range from a few sniffles to life-threatening pneumonia. Someone with the flu is more likely to have a fever and body aches, and someone with RSV is more likely to have a runny nose, a cough that produces mucus, and wheeze. It's especially virulent among infants. "Babies with RSV get wheezy, turn blue, and may go on ventilators," Walsh says. "It's a scary illness and it's really common." By contrast, he says when you are sick with the flu you will experience more fever symptoms than if you are sick with RSV. "In the very young and the very old, RSV can be quite virulent," says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. "It is most dangerous in first six months of life because the infants can develop bronchiolitis," an infection of the smallest branches of the respiratory system, he says.

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