Top 10 medical issues to take care of now before flu season and COVID-19 collide

Oct. 7, 2020
doctor with a pediatric patient and mom addressing medical issues now before COVID and flu season collide.
Learn about important medical issues to address now before flu season collides with an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Photo: Getty Images.

In the same way that we have prepared for possible grocery shortages, stocked up on hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, it’s also wise to take care of your medical appointments now in case health care systems are overwhelmed in the fall and winter months.

When it comes to medical appointments, it’s helpful to plan ahead. Book appointments now. If there’s any need to hunker down at home this winter, you will be ready.  And Virtual Visits are available all the time.

We consulted with Dr. Livia Tsien, a primary care provider at UCHealth Internal Medicine – Snow Mesa in Fort Collins, on the top 10 medial issues to address now.

Here’s her to-do list for you:

This one is a no-brainer. Book your appointment now. Many primary care offices are offering curbside flu shots. It’s easy and affordable to get a flu vaccine and it will undoubtedly keep you safer.

Dr. Livia Tsien describes top medical issues to address now in case both flu and COVID cases spike and cause crowding in clinics and hospitals.
Dr. Livia Tsien describes the top medical issues to address now. Photo: UCHealth.

1. Get your flu vaccine.

“We’re heading into the flu season and coinfection with flu and COVID can increase risk of complications. So, I would strongly recommend a flu vaccine,” said Tsien.

In a normal winter, people who get extremely sick from the flu must be cared for in hospitals. We have a vaccine for the flu. We do not have vaccines yet to prevent COVID-19. So, it’s critical to reduce flu illnesses as much as possible and preserve space in hospitals for people who need treatment for the coronavirus. Do not delay. Your flu shot is one medical issue to address now.

2. Book your annual exam.

Many people let annual exams slide during the spring for themselves or their children. If you are due (or overdue), schedule your annual exam now. Preventive care is an excellent way to stay on top of and improve health. And people of all ages should get vaccinations that are recommended for them. Primary care practices will get busier in the months ahead, so it’s wise to take time to see your provider now.

3. Get screened for cancer.

This is a big one. If you had a mammogram or a colonoscopy scheduled during the stay-at-home orders in the spring, chances are it was canceled. If you haven’t rescheduled your procedure, do it now. Preventive screenings are highly effective. They help providers catch cancer early. And, early diagnosis can dramatically improve health outcomes. You can discuss the timing and necessity of cancer screenings with your primary care doctor at your annual exam. Recommendations on screenings for breast, ovarian, colon, skin, prostate and lung cancer vary based on age and risk factors, including a family history of cancer. It’s vital to have conversations with your doctor so she or he can guide you on how best to proceed.

Tsien encourages patients to come to appointments ready with a list of issues they’d like to discuss and reminders about relevant background.

“It’s important to schedule an annual exam and talk about your medical history so you and your physician can discuss all appropriate cancer screenings,” Tsien said.

4. Keep tabs on chronic diseases.

People with illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder need to be especially vigilant about their health, Tsien said.

“We know that all of these chronic illnesses put people at higher risk for coronavirus. It’s a good idea to follow up with your specialist or your primary care doctor to make sure you are heading into the winter in the best health possible,” Tsien said.

5. Get your prescriptions filled and make sure you are up to date

For people with ongoing health challenges, keeping up with treatments and medications is critical. Check your prescriptions. Are they up to date? If not, schedule an appointment with your doctor. If you have any concerns about going into a provider’s office in person, you can always schedule a Virtual Visit with your primary care provider or your specialist to make sure your prescriptions are up to date.

6. Schedule elective procedures now

When cases of COVID-19 rose in the spring, hospitals across the country and the world were forced to cancel elective medical procedures. Maybe you had been planning on a procedure, but it got canceled and you never rescheduled.

Now is a great time to discuss options with your surgeon, Tsien said.

“If the plan was to get a knee or hip replacement, and it’s already impacting your quality of life, I would reach out to that provider and schedule earlier rather than later,” Tsien said.

No one needs to live with debilitating pain. All patients who come to hospitals for surgery are tested for COVID-19. Those who test positive may have their procedures postponed. And patients who test positive with COVID-19 receive care in separate hospital units or negative air pressure rooms to keep them apart from patients who do not have the coronavirus.

7. Seek help now for anxiety and depression.

Throughout the pandemic, reports of anxiety and depression have been on the rise due to uncertainty and isolation. As we head into darker days, people who already are susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder during a normal year could find themselves feeling more distraught than usual.

“If you feel that you are experiencing new anxiety or depression or if you have any worsening, it’s extra important to follow up now,” Tsien said.

“During the pandemic, not being able to socialize or go to the gym or take advantage of typical outlets has led to increased depression and a harder time coping with moods.”

Anyone who is feeling hopeless or having suicidal thoughts should seek help immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Line  24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255. It is a health issue to address now.

Others can seek advice from their primary care providers. Help for behavioral health issues is now available at many primary care clinics.

8. Get alcohol and substance use problems under control

Tsien and colleagues have been hearing from many patients that their use of alcohol and other drugs has been on the rise.

“They mention that they are drinking a lot more. They will say that they are coping with staying indoors by drinking earlier in the day or using alcohol and other substances more frequently,” Tsien said.

This trend seems to be especially common among retirees.

“They tell me, ‘I don’t have anything else to do. I’m trying to avoid being out in social situations. I’m drinking earlier in the day and am having more drinks at a time.’”

Alcohol and drug use that is out of control can be very dangerous. Anyone with concerns should seek help immediately from their primary care provider, Tsien said.

A national help line also is available to provide assistance to people facing mental health or substance use problems. People can call 1-800-662-HELP  or 1-800-662-4357 for referrals in English and Spanish from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

9. Be wary about weight gain

Many people sought comfort in the spring through food. Tales of bread baking were legendary and stay-at-home orders prompted many people to cook more elaborate meals at home. Food made from scratch is often healthier than restaurant cuisine. But, it’s easy to get carried away and many primary care providers are finding that their patients have gained weight during the pandemic.

Typically, the holiday season is a time when people tend to gain weight. Adding additional pounds this fall and winter to pounds already packed on during the pandemic could put many people into dangerous territory. That’s because experts have found that people who are obese have gotten sicker with COVID-19 and have died at higher rates than those who are not overweight or obese.

Sedentary lifestyles during the pandemic and working from home also have caused problems, Tsien said.

“You’re in your house. You’re doing a lot of work on your computer. You tend to be much more sedentary and the pantry is only 10 steps away, so snacking seems to have gone way up,” she said.

Start by facing the problem. Step on a scale, and if you are concerned about your weight, ask your primary care provider for help. There are medications and programs available. Behavioral health experts embedded in many primary care practices can assist patients. Primary care providers can prescribe medications. And, a program called Pathweigh, which was developed by a UCHealth and University of Colorado endocrinologist, Dr. Leigh Perreault, is becoming available at primary care practices throughout the UCHealth system.

10. Seek help immediately for emergencies

Anyone suffering any kind of emergency should call 911 or go to a hospital immediately.

“It’s OK to go to the ER. Many people who have had strokes or heart attacks tried to wait it out at home. Some have passed,” Tsien said. “Fear of COVID-19 is understandable, but there are procedures and screenings in places at all hospitals and Emergency Departments that allow patients to get care safely.

“Life threatening is life threatening. Do not delay if you have chest pains, acute weakness or signs of a stroke. Those are emergencies.”

Overall, Tsien wants people to be kind to themselves and to seek help when they need it. Living through one of the deadliest pandemics in history has been scary.

“This can be a really stressful and anxiety-provoking time. Guidelines and recommendations change frequently and those with chronic medical problems are at greater risk for coronavirus complications,” she said.

Tsien wants her patients and all others to know that medical providers stand ready to help.

Her key advice: “Make sure you’re staying on top of your medical issues so you can stay as healthy as possible.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.