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Why does everyone seem sick right now? The 3 respiratory viruses hitting NC + how to stay safe

If you’ve been holiday shopping and picked up an inadvertent gift in the form of a respiratory infection, it’s because most respiratory illnesses tracked by the state are on the rise.

At the moment, flu and RSV are outpacing COVID-19 infections by more than 40 percent each, according to the state’s most recent report. But some symptoms are common to all respiratory infections and really, who has time for any of them?

Here is how 2023 compares to previous years and some tips on how to stay well through the winter.

What respiratory illnesses are going around North Carolina?

The state Department of Health and Human Services reports weekly on the incidence of seven contagious respiratory illnesses, counting only positive tests reported at hospital emergency departments.

By far, the most prevalent are flu, COVID-19 and RSV.

RSV is respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus, usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and most people recover within a week or two. But RSV can be more serious for infants and older adults, sometimes requiring hospitalization.

So far this year, 9 deaths have been attributed to the flu: eight adults and one child. Two of those deaths were reported last week.

In the week ending Dec. 5, hospital emergency rooms in the state reported:

1,295 new cases of flu, an increase of 370 from the week before, with the most significant increase in flu-like illnesses occurring in the southeasternmost counties of the state;

1,262 cases of RSV, up 263 from the week before;

889 cases of COVID-19, up 162 from the week before.

Overall, 12.4% of visits to hospital emergency rooms in the past week were prompted by respiratory symptoms, compared to 11.7% in the week ending Nov. 25, DHHS reported.

The state doesn’t estimate the cases of those illnesses where people don’t seek emergency treatment.

How does 2023 compare to previous years?

Respiratory illnesses tend to surge in the fall and winter, especially following holidays when people travel, gather and hug each other’s necks. So far, flu and COVID are not as bad this year as last, but RSV is more prevalent.

Compared to the same week in 2022:

Flu cases were down by about 33% year to year;

COVID-19 cases were down about 41%;

RSV cases went up 265%, from 346 cases in 2022 to 1,262 cases in 2023.

The CDC, whose most current data is from the week ending Nov. 25, shows North Carolina having a “moderate” amount of flu activity, with higher activity reported in our neighboring states.

What are the best ways to avoid flu, COVID-19 and RSV?

In case you haven’t left the house in the past four years, here are some common-sense guidelines:

Vaccines are available for flu, RSV and COVID-19. Flu season runs through spring, so it’s not too late to get protected. The CDC recommends a flu shot for everyone over 6 months old and says a recent study shows that flu vaccines last season significantly reduced the need for hospitalization and the risk of serious illness and death.

Avoid close contact with people who have symptoms.

If you’re sick, avoid close contact with others to avoid spread. Stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone except to get medical care or other necessities. A fever is gone when medicine isn’t needed to suppress it.

Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then toss the tissue in the trash.

Bottles of hand sanitizer on the counter for volunteers and guest as they enter the Valley Rescue Mission for Thanksgiving Dinner service, Thursday, November 26, 2020
Bottles of hand sanitizer on the counter for volunteers and guest as they enter the Valley Rescue Mission for Thanksgiving Dinner service, Thursday, November 26, 2020

Wash hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based sanitizer, and when you’re out, don’t touch your face with your hands.

If someone in your household is sick, reduce the amount of virus you’re exposed to by opening a window or using an air purifier.