Warding Off Winter Illness- Dean - WI

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Published on January 13, 2014

Warding Off Winter Illness

St. Mary's Nurse Epidemiologist Ellen Smith shares her tips on staying healthy this winter

Southern Wisconsin winters can bring bitter cold, blinding snow storms and a bevy of bad bugs. Those bugs, and specifically viruses, can leave those affected searching for any help available.

 “Primetime for the flu is after the holidays.  And that’s because everyone has just been close together in confined areas exchanging their germs,” says St. Mary’s nurse epidemiologist Ellen Smith.  “Usually we see the flu peak here in Southern Wisconsin near the end of January and/or early February.  Right now we seem to be on target for a typical year.” 

The fact that we had exceptionally cold weather which keeps people inside in close quarters, also helps to spread germs.

The number of confirmed cases has been on the rise in our community as well as nationally.  A few cases have been severe, requiring hospitalization, especially in generally young or middle aged adults.  This is different than last year as most hospitalizations were primarily was seen in the elderly population.

The flu can be deadly.  According to the CDC between 3,000 and 49,000 people die each year after contracting the flu.  During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, about 12,000 people died.

“Common symptoms of the flu include fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose and body aches.  In some people these symptoms are much more severe than in others.   And, unlike a cold where you typically feel it coming on slowly, with flu the symptoms often are dramatic,” says Smith.

So how can you avoid the flu?  First, make sure you’re regularly washing your hands, especially after blowing your nose of covering a cough or sneeze with your hands.  Gel sanitizers are a good option when soap and water are not available.  Also, get vaccinated. This truly is the best way to protect yourself and the people around you.

“It’s never too late,” says Smith.  “It takes one to two weeks after you receive the shot to develop the immunity. So if you haven’t gotten a flu shot, now is the perfect time!”

Flu Facts

  • You’re contagious one day before and 5-7 days after you become sick.
  • Every year 3,000-49,000 people die from the flu.
  • Anyone six months of age or older can get the flu shot.

Norovirus – the “Stomach Flu”

Another bug we tend to see this time of year is norovirus, commonly called the “stomach flu.”  Norvirus is pretty contagious and spreads from contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces.  Anyone can become sick with norovirus.

“You’ll know it when you have it.  It’s characterized by a sudden onset of diarrhea and vomiting that typically lasts about one to three days.”  Smith says it comes on so fast that you literally can wake up feeling fine but feel terrible by the time you get to work.  It doesn’t take long to develop.  You can become sick just 24 hours after being exposed to it.

“Cleaning your home is really important if a family member is sick,” says Smith.  “It doesn’t take many of these virus particles to bring on symptoms in someone else.  That means if your family member has it, you really need to use a bleach towelette or other over the counter bleach cleaner and wipe down high-touch surfaces like your cupboards, handles, light switches – anywhere the infected individual would frequently have touched.”

Careful hand washing with soap and water, especially after using the toilet or changing diapers and before eating, is important.  Also, wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them.  It’s important to remember when you are sick, do not prepare food for others.  It’s always important to disinfect and clean surfaces in your home routinely.

Smith also recommends people avoid sharing a bathroom with affected individuals, when possible.  That’s because virus particles are spread into the air when someone vomits, so the bathroom would have the most contamination.

Keep in mind, norovirus can be spread from the moment you feel ill to at least two to three days after you feel better. 

Kids are particularly at risk and sometimes the first ones to pick it up simply because they aren’t as good at hand hygiene, says Smith.

Norovirus Facts

  • Norovirus sickness lasts for 1-3 days.
  • You can spread virus particles for 3 days to as much as two weeks after you feel better.
  • Anyone can get norovirus, and it’s possible to have it multiple times during your lifetime.


This time of year kids also are affected by something called respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.  It causes a cough very similar to croup.  Adults aren’t quite as susceptible and cases and are usually are less severe.  However, it’s a it can be a dangerous illness for the elderly.

By age two, most children in the U.S. will have been infected by RSV.  In fact, it’s the most common cause of an inflammation in the lungs and airways for children under one year of age. 

“Typically, we’ll see RSV in the young population in the wintertime,” says Smith. “We really encourage you and your children to stay home from work or school if you’re sick to help slow the spread.”

RSV is transmitted by droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air.  Other people are infected when they inhale the droplets or touch their eye after touching a surface where droplets landed.

The best protection from RSV is thorough and frequent hand washing and avoid hand to face contact whenever possible.  The young and elderly are often most at risk. In addition, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, like door knobs, will help.

RSV Fast Facts

  • Most children will have had RSV by the time they are two years old.
  • RSV infections last about one to two weeks in children.
  • Every year 75,000-125,000 kids are hospitalized due to RSV.

Rub a Dub Dub

To be most effective, hand washing must be done properly.  Here are some tips for squeaky-clean success:

  • Apply plenty of soap and rub vigorously for at least 15 seconds – sing the “happy birthday song” twice. That should do it!
  • Be sure to wash under your fingernails.
  • Rinse with warm water.
  • Use a towel to turn-off the faucet and open the rest room door.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Avoid Illness by Keeping your Home Clean

Washing your hands regularly is one of the most important things you can do to prevent illness.  According to the CDC, thoroughly cleaning your home also is important, especially if someone there is ill.  The CDC advises carefully washing fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.


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