Any given year, between 5% and 20% of the US population will catch the flu.
Influenza, or the flu, is a virus spread in tiny drops of fluid that an infected person has sneezed or coughed out. Your children can inhale these, or rub droplets contacted from surfaces–or other people–onto their eyes, nose, or mouth. After a 1-4 day incubation period, your child becomes sick.
The initial symptoms of flu include a sudden, high spiking fever, chills, headache, tiredness, and body aches. From there it progresses through sore throat and congestion. Symptoms generally last about ten days, with the worst occurring during the first three days.
Children can be sick for longer than adults, and have more complications.
Complications of the flu commonly include things like pneumonia, ear infections, and sinusitis. Less common complications include fever seizures, encephalopathy, inflammation of the heart, and death.
Serious complications are more common in children with underlying health conditions, but even healthy children can become severely ill. During the 2014-2015 season, more than 145 children died, and more than 200,000 kids were hospitalized with flu complications. Generally about 43% of hospitalized kids have no predisposing health problems.
Children at the highest risk are those with underlying conditions like asthma, a compromised immune system (cancer, HIV/AIDS…), or with chronic diseases (diabetes, seizures…) Also at risk are babies under six months of age, who are not yet old enough to get the vaccine and whose immune systems are not yet adult sized.
We try to make sure high risk kids get their vaccines if they can, but we rely on other people to also get their vaccines to “cocoon” these kids so that they are not exposed. If parents, chid care providers, and the other kids in daycare get their flu shots, then chances are that the cute little baby with heart disease will not catch the flu.
Vaccines rule. Preventing disease is always better and safer than trying to treat it once a child is sick.
Flu vaccines come in two types–shot and inhaled mist. The shot is a dead virus, the inhaled mist is a live attenuated (very weak) virus. Neither can give you the flu or make your child autistic. Since we give the vaccine in the midst of cold and flu season, some people are bound to become ill in the weeks after they get it. It is easy to blame the vaccine. The shot can make your arm red and sore; the mist, since it is live, can give you a mild stuffy nose and a low grade fever. So much better than what the actual flu can do!
Last, what should you do if your child does catch the flu? If he or she has any underlying health conditions or is under two years old, call your doc. We have antiviral meds that, while they taste horrible and are not completely effective, do help.
Then, just like when they have a cold, make them rest, push any sort of fluid they will drink, and treat the symptoms. Ibuprofen will generally work better for the body aches and headaches than acetaminophen. Salt water drops or sprays work for stuffy noses, and for kids over four, cold and cough medicines will help them feel better.
Keep them home, because they are contagious. Adults are contagious for about 5-7 days; kids can be contagious for more than 10 days. Both can be contagious about a day before they have any signs of illness.
Call your doc if your child has any breathing problems, lethargy, fever that persists for more than three days, or isn’t starting to get better after the first few days. Or just if you want to. That’s what we’re here for.