It’s, “ah…ah…ah… [flu]uuu” season, and the sounds of sniffles, sneezes and coughing have been echoing through our emergency center walls! Caring for a sick child is not always easy or straightforward, so let’s go through some flu basics to help you and your family get through this upcoming flu season!
What is the flu?
The flu is a contagious, respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The annual flu season typically starts in the fall and ends in the early spring, with peaks occurring from November to March. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, and as many as 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications, each year. Sadly, 141 children died from the flu and flu-related complications during last year’s flu season.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Most children with the flu will develop fever, headache, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, muscle and body aches and fatigue. Although many will recover within 7 to 14 days, some children may develop flu-related complications such as ear or sinus infections, pneumonia, dehydration, worsening chronic medical symptoms and even death.
Some people are at a higher risk for developing flu-related complications requiring hospitalization. They include:
- Children younger than 2 years old
- People (including children) with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, neurological conditions (i.e., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, seizure disorder), chronic lung disease (i.e., asthma, cystic fibrosis), heart disease, blood disorders (i.e., sickle cell disease), endocrine disorders (i.e., diabetes mellitus), kidney and liver disorders, metabolic and genetic disorders and those with a weakened immune systems (i.e., cancer)
- Women who are pregnant or postpartum (within 2 weeks of delivery)
- Adults older than 65 years old
Does my child need to be tested for the flu?
Although testing for the flu is relatively quick and easy, many of the rapid influenza tests typically found in pediatricians’ offices, urgent care clinics and emergency centers are not very accurate! Because of its unreliability, many physicians will avoid rapid flu testing and automatically treat patients who’ve had flu-like symptoms for less than 48 hours, those with high-risk medical conditions or severe, life-threatening illness. More accurate, but less convenient and timely, flu testing is available, but is typically reserved for hospitalized or high-risk patients.
Where should I take my child if he/she is sick?
Most healthy children with mild symptoms can be safely treated at home! Parents should provide their ill child with fever and pain-reducing medications (i.e., acetaminophen, ibuprofen), plenty of fluids and lots of rest. However, if a child is at high risk for developing flu-related complications or if they are exhibiting worsening symptoms, he/she should be taken to the pediatrician, urgent care or emergency center. Deciding where and when to seek medical care is not a simple task, please take a look at my previous blog, “My Child has Flu-Like Symptoms: Where and When Should I Seek Medical Help?” for further information.
Does my child need antiviral medication?
Antiviral medications can be prescribed to help decrease flu-like symptoms, shorten the time of illness by 24 to 48 hours and prevent the development of flu-related complications. The two FDA-approved antiviral medications available for children include: Tamiflu® (or Oseltamivir) and Relenza® (or Zanamivir). Tamiflu is available in liquid or tablet form and can be safely used in children of all ages, whereas Relenza is available in diskus form and is typically prescribed for children 7 years and older. In order to be most effective, the antiviral medications should be started within the first 2 days of getting sick and continued for 5 days. However, hospitalized or high-risk children may receive an antiviral medication regardless of the day of illness to prevent worsening of their symptoms.
How can I prevent my child from catching the flu?
There are a number of ways parents can help decrease the spread of flu and prevent their children from getting sick, including:
- Getting their child a flu vaccine each year
- Covering their child’s nose and mouth with a tissue while sneezing or coughing
- Throwing away tissues immediately after each use
- Encouraging frequent and proper hand washing
- Cleaning surfaces in the home and toys with a household disinfectant
- Discouraging kids from sharing drinking cups, utensils, toothbrushes and towels
- Keeping ill children at home until he/she is no longer contagious or without fever for at least 24 hours
Each year, the influenza virus causes mild to severe disease in children of all ages. Although most children can be safely observed and treated at home, if your child ever develops worsening or severe symptoms, such as rapid or increased work of breathing, pale or bluish skin color, persistent vomiting, significant dehydration, or decreased or minimal responsiveness, please seek immediate medical care! Texas Children’s Emergency Center in the Texas Medical Center and at Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus are open 24/7 and Texas Children’s Urgent Cares clinics have evening and weekend hours!