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Web tool highlights most common viral strains, causes of winter sickness

Published: Friday, Jan. 3 2014 11:03 p.m. MST

Jenny Spencer, who was diagnosed with bronchitis, coughs as medical assistant Kenny Jackson takes her blood pressure at the Intermountain Salt Lake City Clinic on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jenny Spencer was hoping her incessant cough was a feature of a bacterial infection, but it turns out it's a virus.

"The most frustrating thing is that I can't fall asleep or get any rest because I'm coughing so much," she said.

Spencer, 25, has been sick for three days.

She was instructed to treat her symptoms, which also include a fever, headaches and a sore throat, with over-the-counter medications, to drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. While she wanted what she thought would be quick treatment from an antibiotic, Spencer was disappointed, as viral infections can't be treated with antibiotics.

A variety of viruses are running rampant at this time of the year, and many doctors know this because of data collected from hundreds of ongoing lab tests and made available online via Intermountain Healthcare's GermWatch tool.

"It helps to keep people aware of what's going around online," said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and Primary Children's Hospital.

Pavia is one of the masterminds behind the program, which he said aims to cut down on overtreatment and mistreatment that is common among viral infections and their accompanying uncertainty.

The interactive tool — for which a smartphone application is expected by the end of the year — gives doctors real-time information about infectious diseases that are active in Utah communities.

Residents who become sick can also look to GermWatch to know what's common and when it might be necessary to involve a physician.

"Information, when it is good information, can be very powerful," Pavia said. "It isn't intended to replace good judgment, however."

Many viral illnesses should be treated at home, he said, but when in doubt or when symptoms include shortness of breath, vomiting or a fever that won't subside, patients should contact a doctor.

GermWatch can also help hospitals and clinics plan for an expected influx of patients that might be related to an increasing number of cases in the area, as well as keep various viruses separate from others and kids that can't handle getting sicker, Pavia said.

"Sometimes in the winter, you have more sick kids than you have beds," he said, adding that occupancy, specifically at children's hospitals, is highest in the winter months. "If you know this, you can plan for it, using hospital resources more efficiently."

Patients can also forgo often costly emergency room visits if they know what they've got can only be treated with inexpensive medications.

The public website includes basic information about what is going around and how to prevent and treat the disease.

GermWatch reports are updated daily for various common respiratory viruses, including influenza, parainfluenza, human metapneumovirus, pertussis and rhinovirus, which are all at high levels, and adenovirus, which is currently moderate, and respiratory syncytial virus, which is making a minimal impact.

Spencer is a crucial employee at her place of business and has to at least make it to work every morning. It's easier because she loves her job, but she has also spent a lot of time watching TV and recuperating the past few days.

"I don't feel great," she said. And she's hoping the sickness doesn't last too much longer.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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