Thursday 21 February 2019

Non-flu virus to blame for rise in chest infections

'Motley crew' of different germs causing respiratory problems

Dr Vida Hamilton
Dr Vida Hamilton

Alan O'Keeffe

A "rogue's gallery" of viruses are to blame for a significant number of chest infections this winter.

But unlike the H1N1 influenza virus, there are no vaccines to counteract these viruses that are causing large numbers of respiratory tract infections.

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Some of these viruses can contribute to deaths of people with chronic illnesses, said Dr Vida Hamilton, HSE National Clinical Advisor, Acute Hospitals.

"There's a whole rogue's gallery of viruses that cause respiratory infections," said Dr Hamilton.

"Mostly they are mild, but in people with chronic underlying disease, they can be serious and they do lead to hospital admissions," she said.

She told the Sunday Independent these infections have led to a rise in elderly patients being admitted to hospitals.

Influenza is circulating at relatively low levels so far this year.

"It's the H1N1 flu which is associated with the more severe disease leading to higher critical care requirements and a higher risk of death when combined with other health problems.

"We had 45 admissions so far this year to critical care with influenza and nine people sadly passed away," she said.

But a large number of other respiratory viruses are also circulating - "these are chest infections but there isn't a vaccine for them", she said.

The most common one is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which peaked before Christmas, but a large number of other viruses are making people sick.

"Hospital respiratory admissions are around the same level as this time last year.

"The difference between this year and last year is that last year was predominantly caused by flu. This year, only about half is caused by flu and then the rest is caused by this motley crew of other respiratory infections," she said.

These other viruses can cause death and are commonly found in people with chronic respiratory or other health problems.

"They could certainly contribute to mortality but the difference is that we don't have the vaccine to prevent these," she said.

Some of the respiratory admissions are bacteria based and only those can be treated with antibiotics.

"The vast majority of the walking unwell have a viral illness and it is not going to benefit from an antibiotic. The vast amount will get better with supportive care.

"The best thing to do is listen to your body. Rest up if you need to rest. Have really good infection control precautions in the form of cough and sneeze etiquette, so that you don't share it with others who may be more vulnerable than you are," she said.

"There are over-the-counter medications that can relieve symptoms. They don't affect the duration of the underlying illness but they can make you feel better."

• Support information is on websites undertheweather.ie and HSE.ie/winter

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