Central Valley

As the Valley flu season wanes, allergies kick up

Flu season has eased in the central San Joaquin Valley, but it was hard to tell Sunday by the runny noses, itchy throats and muffled coughs in an urgent care waiting room.

Bronchitis and asthma don't occupy a season -- they're year-round residents of the Valley, said Elaine Thweatt, a nurse practitioner at Peachwood Medical Group Urgent Care at Villa and Herndon Avenue in Clovis.

And a respiratory virus circulating this spring is making people miserable, Thweatt said. "It just leaves you with this weird cough," she said.

Hospital emergency rooms report fewer flu and respiratory-related cases in the past few weeks, but urgent care centers -- often a substitute doctor's office on evenings and weekends -- remain busy treating patients with viruses, allergies and asthma.

A nagging cough brought Brad Rohland, 32, of Fresno, to Peachwood on Sunday.

A pilot for SkyWest airlines, Rohland said he went to an urgent care center a week ago in Phoenix. He was treated for bronchitis.

He wasn't getting better so he decided to come to Peachwood, he said. "I'm trying to get healthy so I don't spread it around to everyone else."

Weekend patients at urgent care centers often cite the coming work week as a reason for their visits. "I need to get better -- now," is a common refrain, Thweatt said.

Going to the urgent care center was quicker than getting an appointment with her regular doctor and a lot less time consuming than a trip to a hospital emergency room, said college student Jackie Locasto, 20, of Clovis. Locasto was seventh in line when the doors at Peachwood opened Sunday.

She was treated for a sinus infection within an hour.

Jackie's mother, Karen Locasto, accompanied her daughter. People who wanted to get in and out of the urgent care center formed a line outside the clinic before the doors opened at 9 a.m., Karen Locasto said. "By noon, the whole hall way will be full," she said.

James Lodwick, 35, of Fresno, got to the clinic early so he could make it to church after his appointment.

Lodwick said he hardly ever is sick and, consequently, he doesn't have a regular doctor. But a virus that started as a chest cold three weeks ago had moved, blocking his sinuses and then his ears. "I can't hear anything," he said.

Besides the urgent-care center offering quicker service than a hospital emergency department, Lodwick said it was cheaper. He paid a $10 insurance co-payment for his clinic visit. A trip to the emergency room would have cost him $50.

It's not unusual for people to come in complaining of a virus this time of year, Thweatt said. But she checks to make sure the symptoms aren't caused by bacterial infections.

And separating allergies from respiratory viruses can be a challenge. "When you have allergies and you're exposed to a virus, it can make you more susceptible to the virus," Thweatt said.

When her daughter started coughing three weeks ago, Annette Phillips, 33, of Clovis thought allergies might be to blame. But the cough lasted and a doctor prescribed an asthma inhaler for 4-year-old Taylor. On Sunday, Phillips brought Taylor to the doctor to see whether her lungs were clearing. "She's feeling better but he wanted to check her," she said.

Nicole Powell of Fresno was waiting for a diagnosis for her sons' breathing problems. She doubted they had the flu. One-year-old Kameron and 6-year-old Darius both got flu shots this year, she said.

Thweatt said she can't rule out the flu bug when patients come in with coughs and fevers. Influenza can hang around until May. She diagnosed someone with influenza Saturday, she said.

But this time of year, the more likely cause of the miseries are respiratory viruses, allergies and asthma, she said.