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A lot of bugs out there

Welcome to the jungle -- there are all kinds of illnesses going around right now: Stomach bugs, influenza, mononucleosis, upper respiratory illness, you name it.

The flu and bug season came early this year, and the area is being hit with both right now, said Jackie McKenzie, an RN and infection preventionist with Essentia St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes.

"What we have been seeing is both the respiratory and gastrological illnesses," she said. "We've seen an increase in both in both urgent care and emergency room visits. Some hospitalized patients have been diagnosed with laboratory-confirmed influenza."

Essentia St. Mary's is also seeing asthma patients with worsening conditions due to illness and some cases of pneumonia, she said.

McKenzie isn't sure if the winter bug season is worse than usual or if the combination of respiratory and gastrological illnesses hitting the area at the same time just makes it seem worse.

"It's not always common to see both at the same time," she said. "And it started a little earlier this year -- we're seeing both (types of illness) in our employees and our patients."

That means it's time to go on the defensive to stay healthy: Wash your hands a lot, buy and use hand disinfection products, and use those foam hand disinfection units at health care facilities, the community center and elsewhere. Use those cart decontamination wipes at Central Market and Walmart.

"We can never overstate in times of illness or health, hand hygiene is the best thing people can do," she said.

Cover your cough, and if you're sick, stay home and sleep as much as you can: A minor bug can make you more vulnerable to a more serious illness.

"If your immune system is down a bit, you're more susceptible to getting something else in addition to what you have," McKenzie said.

It's also important to protect infants too young for the flu vaccine. Keep them away from large crowds when flu is in the community and avoid close contact with family members who are sick.

During the latest reporting week, 226 people were hospitalized with the flu across Minnesota, according to the state Health Department.

Since the start of the season, nearly 600 people have been hospitalized. Officials say two people died from flu-related complications during the latest reporting period, bringing the total to four statewide since October.

Health officials say 17 nursing homes reported outbreaks.

The good news, no schools reported influenza outbreaks -- but that's likely due to many districts being on winter break.

McKenzie says it's not too late to get a flu shot and there is plenty of vaccine available.

"I've heard people say they got the flu shot, but they still got the flu," she said. "It's important to say that they're not for the stomach flu," and won't prevent the vomiting and diarrhea that can go with a stomach bug.

"They're for respiratory influenza," whose symptoms can be similar to a cold, except a cold stays in the head, and the flu comes with a fever and extreme fatigue that leaves people unable to do their normal activities, she said.

It takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to offer full protection, she said.

"Sometimes people feel that they got the flu shot and got sick from the flu shot," she said, but they were likely coming down with something already and it hit about the same time as they got the vaccine.

"You can get a mild reaction," from the vaccine, she added. "People may have symptoms, but it's a sign that the body is responding to the vaccine and you're getting protection."

Antibiotics don't work on the flu, which is a virus and anti-virus medication is not always recommended, so McKenzie said it's best to call the clinic to see if it's worth making a trip to the doctor.

When it comes to sick children, parents should watch for breathing problems, dehydration and whether kids are extremely irritable or extremely sleepy.

"It's always worth a call," she said. "These are the symptoms, should I come in?"

Another sign to watch for is when a sick person is getting better, then suddenly gets worse again. It can mean the illness isn't clearing and they should see a doctor.

St. Mary's Hospital is not restricting visitors right now, but is asking people to use common sense.

"If you're ill, don't visit people at the hospital," McKenzie said.