What is the flu? The flu, or influenza, is a respiratory illness that is caused by a virus. The flu is very contagious and is spread by droplets from coughing, sneezing, and nasal secretions. There are several strains of the influenza virus that can cause disease. The flu vaccine contains 3 or 4 strains (depending on which vaccine you get) and will provide protection against those strains.
Most flu cases are not serious and will improve without prescription medication. For children and people who are at high risk for flu complications, it is recommended to get a prescription medicine to help the flu to go away faster. These medications are most effective if started in the first 48 hours of the flu. Complications of flu include pneumonia, asthma attacks, dehydration, or worsening chronic diseases such as diabetes or congestive heart failure.
If your child has a high risk condition, it is very important that your child get the flu vaccine to prevent getting sick with the flu in the first place. If your child has a high risk condition and happens to come down with the flu, then see your child’s doctor in the first 48 hours of symptoms appearing for treatment.
High risk conditions include any of the following: being under two years of age, having asthma or other chronic lung diseases, having heart disease, kidney disease, metabolic disease (like diabetes), neurologic disease, being immunosuppressed (like being on chemotherapy for cancer), taking ongoing aspirin or steroid therapy, being pregnant, being over 65 years of age, or being obese.
If your child does not have a high risk condition, but someone else at home is high risk, then your doctor may also prescribe medicine for your child so that that other person is not exposed to the flu virus as long.
If your child is healthy and does not have any high risk conditions, you can help your child with the flu by providing symptom care. For stuffy noses, nasal saline for the nose can be helpful. Running a humidifier in your child’s room may also make it easier to breathe at night. Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with fevers and aches. Over the counter cold medications are not recommended for children under age 6 years of age.
If your child has a fever more than 3 days, or has high fevers (>104), is lethargic or is not drinking enough to pee at least three times a day, call your doctor. For children under age 2 years of age or for children with high risk conditions, call your doctor within 48 hours if you suspect that your child has the flu.
How to prevent spreading the flu? Good handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and not sharing items that go in the mouth (such as utensils and cups) are great ways to prevent spreading any virus, including the flu. Keep your child away from others when he/she is sick. Cleaning surfaces with disinfectants can help slow down the spread of flu virus. For high risk people in the family, check with your doctor to see if it is recommended that they get prescription medication to prevent them from getting sick.
Stay healthy, wash your hands often, and get vaccinated!
Sandy L. Chung, MD, FAAP
Link for AAP policy on flu vaccination: http://aapnews.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/09/02/aapnews.20130902-1