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Editorial: As flu stalks the city, go to a doctor, not the ER

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Updated: February 12, 2013 2:33PM

Chicago area emergency rooms are packed with people suffering from the flu.

At Lutheran General Hospital Tuesday night, the emergency room waiting area was crowded with children and senior citizens wearing surgical masks. Meanwhile, Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Monday was one of eight Chicago area hospitals on bypass partly because of flu patients.

Unless patients have life-threatening symptoms, they should go to a doctor’s office or an ambulatory clinic, rather than an emergency room. But many people go the emergency room anyway because they don’t have health insurance.

Also, symptoms tend to sneak up on people, who suddenly find themselves very sick, said Dr. Rahul Khare, emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Usually, people who are hospitalized are severely dehydrated or have other serious medical issues that are complicated by the flu, he said.

If this year’s outbreak feels like a surprise, it’s because last year was a mild flu season and because the flu usually doesn’t besiege the country until late January or February. This year it’s already widespread in more than 40 states.

In Boston, the mayor declared a public-health emergency Wednesday. A Pennsylvania hospital has set up a tent to handle overflow patients.

On Thursday, Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said that as of last Friday almost 150 people statewide had been admitted to hospital intensive care units with the flu and six have died.

The main flu virus this year is especially virulent, and other bugs are causing flu-like illnesses. But Dr. Julie Morita of the Chicago Department of Public Health said it’s not too late to get a flu shot. This year’s vaccine is a good match for the viruses that are out there, and there’s no shortage. It takes about two weeks after a shot to develop immunity, and although you can still get the flu after that, it is likely to be less severe.

Flu shots are available from doctors and other health-care providers, some pharmacies and the CDPH’s Fast-Track Immunization Clinics, which give free vaccinations five days a week to adults and children 6 months old or older. Chicago residents can call 311 to find out where to get a free flu shot.

To avoid getting or spreading the flu, the CDPH recommends:

† Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

† Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

† Don’t share cups, straws or anything that goes in the mouth.

† Cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze, and promptly discard used facial tissues.

† If you are sick, stay home.

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