In this season of coughs and congestion, fatigue and headaches, it can be tough to tell if you have the flu or some other type of virus.

Kelsey Cooper, a nurse practitioner at Piedmont Internal Medicine in Warrenton, can help clear up the gray matter. She gives a pretty good description of the difference between a nasty bug and the full-blown flu.

People who become more rundown as the days go by, who have various symptoms including a headache or runny nose and are tired enough to stay home from work, probably have some type of virus, she said.

“But it if looks like the patient has been run over by an 18-wheeler, they’re lying over the table, in their pajamas, and couldn’t care less who sees them, that’s the flu,” she said, adding symptoms tend to strike suddenly. “If you feel that bad, you need to see the doctor.”

Throughout the Fredericksburg region—and Virginia—people have been visiting doctors in recent weeks as cold and flu season descends upon the area, as it does every winter.

The flu, or influenza, is an extremely contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza A or B viruses, and Virginia has been reporting widespread flu activity for five weeks, said Stephanie Goodman, district epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health.

That means there have been laboratory-confirmed cases in at least half the regions in the state.

The northwest region, which includes the Rappahannock Health District—Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford—has not seen as much activity as other regions.

The local region had five of the 183 flu cases confirmed in the two weeks before the agency’s Dec. 30 report.

“We have not received any reports of outbreaks [at schools, nursing facilities, etc.] in our community,” Goodman said. “Given previous years and what is happening in other areas of Virginia, I would expect that we will begin to receive reports from facilities in the near future.”

Goodman, whose office is in Fredericksburg, said the health department typically doesn’t track the many viruses out there. She mentioned a few: norovirus, the winter vomiting bug; rhinovirus, the most common viral infection and cause of the common cold; and coronavirus, which brings about a general feeling of malaise, with sore throat and headache, cough and fever.

Flu usually does not cause stomach-related problems, Goodman said, though sometimes children will have vomiting.

Mary Washington Healthcare on Thursday elevated its flu status from green to yellow, which indicates moderate activity. All associates at Mary Washington Hospital, Stafford Hospital and its 28 healthcare facilities who declined the flu vaccine were issued a mask.

Masks also were available for the public, and visitors with flu-like symptoms were asked to postpone their visit until they felt better.

Patient First urgent-care clinics in Virginia have seen a 66-percent increase in flu diagnoses in the last week, said Dr. Rod Johnson, medical director of the Central Park facility.

“That’s in line with what I have personally been seeing in Fredericksburg,” he said.

Symptoms of the flu are a fever over 100.4 degrees, cough, sneezing and runny nose, sore throat, body aches and headaches.

“Usually the symptoms have a sudden onset,” Johnson said.

Health officials interviewed encouraged residents to see a doctor as soon as they’re struck by that feeling of being hit by a truck. If lab tests confirm the flu, doctors can prescribe anti-viral flu medicine, which will reduce the duration of the illness, if taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, Johnson said.

Also, recent reports suggested the flu vaccine might be only 10 percent effective this season. That probably was based on evaluations in Australia, Goodman said, which uses a vaccine similar to the one in the United States, and it turned out that Australia’s overall effectiveness was 33 percent, she said.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control will assess the U.S. vaccine’s effectiveness after the flu season, but Goodman says vaccines usually are effective between 30 percent and 61 percent of the time.

And even if a vaccine doesn’t prevent a patient from getting the flu, it will decrease the symptoms and lessen the flu’s duration, Cooper said.

She said patients can still get flu vaccines and reminded them it takes two weeks for the vaccine to become effective.

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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