Is it the Flu? Or is it Measles or Whooping Cough?
February 09, 2015 6:35 AM
by Michael Martin Garrett
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It’s that time of year.

You wake up one cold morning, suddenly sore and congested. Your nose runs, your body aches and your body is running hot.

Maybe it’s the flu, or maybe it’s one of a handful of illnesses making the rounds with similarly vague symptoms.

Marlene Stetson, director of infection prevention and control with Mount Nittany Medical Center, says there are some overlooked illness that have been seen around Pennsylvania in recent months with symptoms very similar to the flu.

The measles, or rubeola, is one such illness.

A highly contagious respiratory infection, Stetson says only a couple hundred cases per year have been reported nationally over the past few decades. But according to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been over 100 cases reported in just the last month – well over the usual amount.

“The most recent cases being reported across the U.S. originated from an exposure event that occurred at Disney Land in California,” Stetson says. “And susceptible folks then returned to their home states, and we’ve now seen a multiple state outbreak.”

Stetson says that's a fairly common way for measles to spread. When travelers visit from other countries where the measles vaccine is uncommon, they can bring the measles virus with them. That's complicated by the fact that someone can be contagious with the measles virus for days before developing symptoms.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health website, one case of suspected measles has turned up in Lancaster County, but health officials don't believe it's related to the Disney Land outbreak.

After several days of flu-like symptoms, Stetson says measles patients develop a “characteristic rash” that can spread across the entire body. With the rash comes a high fever of up to 104 degrees, though both typically subside within a week.

Stetson says measles was once incredibly common, so much so that “practically no kid escaped childhood without catching it.” Though readily-available vaccines have caused many people to underestimate it, the measles can still occur in immunized individuals whose vaccine effectiveness has faded over the years.

Another often-overlooked illness with similar symptoms is whooping cough, or pertussis. Several possible cases of whooping cough have been reported in the Centre region.

Like the measles, it’s an easily spread respiratory illness that begins with flu-like congestion, coughing and sneezing. As the illness progresses, the cough evolves from the occasional dry wheeze into intense coughing spells – which can be so powerful that vomiting afterwards is common, especially in children.

Just like the measles, public awareness of whooping cough has waned over the past several decades as the advent of a vaccine drastically reduced the number of reported cases. But since the 1980’s, the number of cases has been gradually increasing and the CDC has started recommending that all adults get an additional vaccine.

“Whooping cough is difficult to diagnose, because you can imagine most people with cold symptoms and a persistent cough will wait to see a doctor until they’ve had the cough for weeks,” Stetson says. “So many cases go undiagnosed, and that also makes it difficult to know what kind of exposure may have occurred.”

Someone with whooping cough is contagious at the onset of symptoms, though most are no longer contagious by the time the coughing spells develop after a week or two.  Stetson says the cough can “last virtually for months,” even if someone hasn’t been contagious for weeks. If a persistent cough lasts for two or more weeks, Stetson recommends seeing a healthcare professional.

Stetson says that Mount Nittany Medical Center is prepared to deal with cases of both measles and whooping cough should the need arise.

“In both cases, vaccination remains the number of thing you can to do to protect yourself,” she says. “As an adult make sure you have an [a pertussis vaccination], and children should be immunized with guidance from a pediatrician.”


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