INFLUENZA IN CHILDREN
Influenza, the “flu,” is a viral infection of the respiratory tract that can affect the whole body. The “flu season” in the United States occurs from October to May with the most cases reported in the months of December, January and February; however, it is possible to get the flu any time of the year. A person can have influenza many times in their life because the virus changes from season to season and there are different types of the virus. Children 5 years of age and younger, and especially younger than age 2, are at higher risk of complications from the flu because their immune system is still developing.
SYMPTOMS OF THE FLU
The flu is often confused with the common cold, but the symptoms are usually more severe than the typical cold. Symptoms usually begin about 2 days after exposure to the virus and can include:
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- sore throat
- runny nose
- nausea or vomiting
- ear pain
- sudden fever
The observable difference between a common cold and the flu in children is that a child with a cold will usually have the energy to play, keep up with routines and not have a fever. They also do not feel sick or achy.
The flu is very contagious and it is spread by virus infected droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air. People get infected by inhaling these droplets and once they are infected, are contagious from a day before they actually feel sick until their symptoms have ended. This time they can infect others usually lasts about a week for adults but can last longer in children.
HOW TO TREAT THE FLU
Call your doctor right away if your baby under 2 months old suddenly has a fever. If your older baby or young child shows signs of the flu, call your doctor within 24 hours as the flu can be treated with an anti-viral drug to lessen the effects, but it only works if administered within the first 48 hours after exposure to the virus. Most children do not need an antiviral medicine, and if it is recommended, be sure and discuss possible side effects with your doctor. Call the doctor if your child:
- has flu symptoms
- has a high fever, or fever with a rash
- has trouble breathing or rapid breathing
- has bluish skin color
- is not drinking enough fluids
- seems very sleepy or lethargic
- seems confused
- has flu symptoms that get better, but then get worse
Treat children with the flu by having them drink lots of fluid to prevent dehydration. Let them rest and sleep as much as possible, which is usually easy because they really don’t feel like doing anything else. Dress them in layers such as a t-shirt, sweatshirt and robe, as this makes it easy to add or remove clothes as needed when they are feeling cold one minute and hot the next.
Over-the-counter medications also help with the symptoms of the flu. Acetaminophen can be given to babies 6 months and younger, and children older than 6 months can take either ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Both of these drugs help reduce fever, but they are not the same. Be sure to follow label instructions and get the right medicine for your child’s age. Never treat a child with aspirin. Aspirin puts children at risk of developing Reye’s Syndrome, which is a serious illness that can affect a child’s liver and brain. Call your doctor before giving your child any medication other than ibuprofen or acetaminophen, including any over-the-counter cold and flu medications. Also, it is worth noting that antibiotics should not be given for the flu as it is viral, not bacterial, so they cannot help.
Kids who are sick should stay home from school and childcare until they are have not had a fever for at least 24 hours without the use of a fever reducing medication. Some may need to stay at home longer, depending on other symptoms and how they feel. Never smoke around your children, especially when they have the flu, as this makes it harder and take longer to recover from the flu.
There is not a way to have 100% protection from the flu, but there are things you can do to help protect yourself and your children from the virus. These steps make spreading the virus less likely:
- Wash your hands well and often with soap, especially after using the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before eating or preparing food.
- Don’t share cups and eating utensils, towels or washcloths. Never share toothbrushes.
- Stay home from work or school when you’re sick with the flu.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then put it in the trash. If a tissue isn’t available, cough or sneeze into your upper arm, not into your hands. Teach children to cough or sneeze into their inner elbow.
- Wash doorknobs, toys, toilet handles and counters with soap and hot water.
- Avoid kissing sick children on the mouth or face, and do not kiss them if you are sick.
Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6 months and older. Vaccination is especially important for people who are at high risk of health problems from the flu to get vaccinated. Children under 5 years of age and older than 6 months, people over the age of 65, and all pregnant or breastfeeding women are considered high risk. Also, anyone who has a compromised or weakened immune system, residents of long-term care facilities, child care providers and anyone with a chronic medical condition such as asthma are all encouraged to get a flu vaccination.
There are conditions that may prevent someone from getting the flu vaccine. Be sure and consult with your doctor if your child has ever had a severe reaction to a flu vaccination or if your child has had Guillain-Barre syndrome. (This is a rare condition that affections the nervous and immune systems.) It used to be that if you had an egg allergy, you should be cautious about receiving the flu vaccine. Health experts now say that the amount of egg allergen in the vaccine is safe even for a child with a severe egg allergy. Still, it is recommended that a child with an egg allergy should get the flu shot in a doctor’s office, not at a drugstore or other venue. If your child is sick, talk to your doctor about rescheduling the flu shot after the illness has passed. Call your health provider for information about the vaccinations available for the current flu season in September of each year.