ILLUSTRATIONS BY RYAN SNOOK. PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF MINTON (GROOMER: STEPHANIE NICOLE SMITH)
When Steve Sonntag started coughing in November 2000, he thought it was no big deal — probably a cold he’d picked up at the nursing home while visiting his mother, Natalie, who was 87. The Stockton, California, teacher was 55 at the time, active and — other than the cough — in good health.
The cough was constant, but he ignored it, assuming it would clear up on its own. As the winter wore on, though, it felt worse in his chest. When he couldn’t catch his breath and his temperature shot up to 106 degrees, he finally went to the doctor. A CT scan revealed viral pneumonia and fluid buildup around Sonntag’s heart, and he was admitted to the hospital — “STAT,” written in red. The next day, a surgeon made an incision in his chest and inserted a tube to remove 12 ounces of fluid.
Sonntag spent two days in the intensive care unit and 21 more in the hospital after he also developed a blood clot in his leg. “I nearly died,” he says. The lesson? “I should have gone to the doctor a lot earlier,” Sonntag, now 73, admits.
Most of us come down with some kind of cough every winter, and over the years we’ve learned to live with this. But a cough that lasts more than two weeks — or is accompanied by a high fever, shortness of breath, chest pain or coughing up blood — needs prompt attention, particularly during the winter months, when influenza is rampant. With age, our immune defenses weaken and subtle physiological changes in our lungs make us more susceptible to illnesses.
"As you get older, it’s more likely a winter cough is something bad,” says David Beuther, M.D., chief medical information officer at National Jewish Health in Denver, a leading respiratory hospital. After age 65, there’s an increased risk for serious complications from the flu — such as pneumonia, heart inflammation, kidney failure or sepsis. Up to 70 percent of people hospitalized for wintertime flus are 65 and older, and this age group suffers 85 percent of flu-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet as Sonntag’s case shows, you can run into these problems at an even younger age. Today Sonntag advises friends to always wash their hands — and even shower and change their clothes — after visiting a hospital or nursing home, where he thinks he picked up his bug. “It sounds extreme, though I believe it’s helpful,” he says. He’s up to date on his pneumonia vaccines and gets the flu vaccine every year. “I never really considered getting any shots prior to this health emergency, but I am a firm believer in them now,” he adds. “Nobody should go through something like what I went through.” In addition to those precautions, it helps to fully understand what your winter cough might mean — and when to see a physician.
There are three ways to prevent someone else’s cough from 'going viral.'
1. Get vaccinated
Every year, get a flu shot. If you are 65 or older, you ideally want the high-dose vaccine.
2. Wash your hands
Lather up or use alcohol-based sanitizer gel after shaking hands or opening doors in public.
3. Skip that smoke
Just one cigarette paralyzes the cilia in your lungs for up to 24 hours, increasing your risk.
Lisa Haney is a health and wellness journalist based in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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