SALT LAKE CITY — Several hospitals in northern Utah are asking visitors to keep the coughing and sniffles to themselves to keep colds and the flu away.
Respiratory illnesses, including influenza, often peak in the holiday season, and are already starting to increase in frequency, according to Rachelle Boulton, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
She said the strongest strain this year is the same strain that reached epidemic proportions in 2009 — H1N1. It is also hitting the typically healthy adult population, ages 25 to 49, the hardest so far.
"We are seeing similar trends this year," Boulton said. "It is hitting that workforce age group, your moms and dads, pretty intensely."
The H1N1 strain is part of this year's flu vaccine, however, which, she said, should help keep it from spreading as widely as it did years ago, if people take advantage of the vaccine.
Nearly 1,000 people were hospitalized with the flu last year throughout Utah, and of those, 34 patients died from complications of the illness, according to local health department data. The majority of hospitalizations occurred the three weeks following Christmas, and, while hundreds of patients were over age 65, influenza affected every age group similarly.
Older patients with chronic medical conditions, as well as people with asthma, diabetes, heart conditions or pregnant women are at increased risk of serious complications from flu. And children too young to be vaccinated against the flu are also at higher risk.
But even healthy children and adults can get the flu.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 43 percent of kids who died from flu complications last year were otherwise healthy and didn't have high-risk medical conditions.
"It's not a fun disease to have; it's not pleasant," Boulton said. "Even though symptoms last anywhere from five to seven days, you can feel the effects for even a few weeks after you get ill. It can really take a toll on you and take you out of commission for a while."
The health department is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated now, as it takes about two weeks to develop a full immunity to the illness.
Boulton said it is not possible to get sick from the shot, as it employs an inactive virus that cannot replicate inside the body or cause any symptoms. The flu mist version of the vaccine, sprayed into the nose, uses a weakened version of the virus and can sometimes produce minor flu-like symptoms, she said.
"Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is a really good idea," Boulton said. "It offers that communitywide protection, protecting those most at risk."
Protecting others from disease also includes use of other preventive measures, such as wearing breathing masks when sick and proper hand washing and regular use of hand sanitizer.
Masks and hand washing are required at many hospitals throughout the state, specifically at this time of the year.
"There are a lot of vulnerable people in hospitals," said Ogden Regional Medical Center spokesman, Craig Bielik. "We need to protect our patients, who include children and newborn babies."
Hospital employees practice the same simple hygiene principles year-round and are required to get flu shots every year.
"We want to be proactive about protecting our patients," Bielik said. "This is the most effective way to do it."
Intermountain Medical Center in Murray is also prohibiting visitors under the age of 14 to its newborn intensive care unit, to protect "vulnerable babies, whose lungs are sometimes underdeveloped," said hospital spokesman Jess Gomez.
"They are at higher risk to contract those complicating illnesses," he said.
The flu generally causes more severe symptoms than the common cold, including fever, runny nose, sore throat and muscle pain that is often absent with a cold, Boulton said.
"Influenza is definitely here, and it's not going to take very long to be in the full-blown flu season," she said.
While January ushers in the majority of cases, flu season typically runs between October and May.
Flu shots and nasal spray vaccinations are available at the Salt Lake County Health Department, as well as at many doctor offices, community health clinics, pharmacies and other health care providers. To receive a flu shot from a Salt Lake County Health Department clinic, call 385-468-4152 to make an appointment.