Lindsey Tanner

CHICAGO: Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola — chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug.

That message hasn’t reached many Americans, judging from stories that emergency room doctors and nurses swapped this week at a Chicago medical conference. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up.

That’s one reason why doctors say it’s especially important for patients to get their flu shots: Fewer flu cases could mean fewer Ebola false alarms.

“The whole system gets bogged down, even if it’s a false alarm,” Dr. Kristi Koenig said during a break at the American College of Emergency Physicians’ annual meeting.

Since the first Ebola diagnosis in the U.S., on Sept. 30 in a Liberian man treated in Dallas, doctors say they’ve had to reassure patients with many fears but none of the risk factors.

Examples shared by those attending the meeting include:

• An Ohio patient who thought she had Ebola because her husband had worked in Dallas, but not with the Ebola patient.

• A New Mexico woman who sought ER testing for Ebola because she had visited Africa two years ago.

• Two Alabama patients who worried they were infected after traveling through an airport in Atlanta, the same city where Ebola patients were treated.

Those Alabama patients had intestinal symptoms but no contact with Ebola patients nor recent travel to Ebola-plagued countries in West Africa, and they were sent home after doctors consulted with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Dr. David Pigott, an emergency medicine specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Flu and other airborne diseases can be transmitted by indirect contact with infected people. The only way to get Ebola is through direct contact with blood, vomit and other body fluids from Ebola patients, experts say.

While Ebola can be quickly ruled out for many patients by asking about recent travel to West Africa and contact with Ebola patients, “There’s still some concern about anybody with symptoms ... because it’s so much in the news,” said Koenig, director of public health preparedness at the University of California in Irvine.