Protecting your family during flu season

Influenza, the flu, is a potentially severe and always miserable viral infection which occurs in epidemic form each winter. It is caused by a variety of strains of influenza A or influenza B that are constantly mutating and changing; in any given season there are generally two or three strains circulating and causing disease.

Identifying flu symptoms

Although many of us tend to call any viral cold or stomach bug “the flu,” influenza is unmistakable as the real McCoy. There is sudden onset of high fever, sore throat, runny nose, body aches and bad cough. Children often also experience vomiting and diarrhea which, coupled with loss of appetite and the refusal of a miserable child to drink, makes dehydration a very common problem that can require hospitalization for IV fluids.

A bout of influenza can last up to a week and is extremely contagious. Once a child has the flu, most likely all the children in the household as well as the parents will get it. So in addition to the misery and complications of the illness, the children miss a week or more of school and parents miss work. Nationwide, absenteeism from work because of influenza exacts a huge economic cost.

Influenza causes serious illness

Each year thousands of children are hospitalized with complications of influenza, especially pneumonia, but also including heart failure and neurological complications such as meningitis and Guillain-Barr syndrome. Since 2004, when the CDC started collecting specific pediatric influenza mortality information, 166 children have died from the flu nationwide. According to the CDC, although certain medical conditions such as asthma increase a child’s risk from the flu, the majority of pediatric flu deaths each year occur in children with no underlying medical problems. There is some emerging evidence of an association of many of these flu deaths with a secondary pneumonia caused by resistant staph aureus. This is especially worrisome since, over the past few years, more and more community-acquired skin infections are found to be caused by this same resistant staph.

See your pediatrician early

If you suspect your child has the flu, you should see your pediatrician as soon as possible. A rapid office test to confirm the diagnosis of influenza A or B is widely available, and early treatment with an antiviral drug such as Tamiflu might shorten the duration and severity of the illness. Your pediatrician will also make sure your child is not developing any complications of the flu.

CDC recommends flu shots for children 6 Months to 18 Years of age

As parents, we are all committed to keeping our children as healthy as possible, especially through the winter months. We make sure they are eating healthily and getting a good night’s sleep, and we encourage them to wash their hands; but with all the different viral and bacterial infections out there, this can be an uphill battle. The best thing you can do to help your child avoid influenza, one of the biggest health risks they face each winter, is to get them an annual flu shot.

The CDC now recommends that all children and adolescents from 6 months to 18 years of age receive the flu shot. This is because of our increasing recognition of the potential risks of influenza in children as well as the fact that school children with influenza represent an important reservoir of infection that then spreads to the community at large, potentially endangering young infants and the elderly who are even more at risk from the flu.