By Dr. Kelly Lee, MD, PM Pediatrics

Influenza, commonly called the flu, is a highly contagious illness that can occur in children or adults of any age. However, the flu is especially dangerous in young children. Each year, an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized due to influenza complications. It is important to know what you can do to protect your child from the flu and also when to seek further medical attention.

What is the flu and how does it spread?

Influenza is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system - your nose, throat and lungs. The virus spreads mainly by droplets in the air when someone with the flu coughs, sneezes or talks, or, less often, by picking up the virus when touching objects or surfaces.

In our area, the flu season usually occurs between November and April. It occurs more often in the winter months because people spend more time in close contact with one another.

How do I know if my child has the flu?

The flu may seem like a common cold with a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat. A cold usually develops slowly and is more of a nuisance, whereas the flu tends to come on suddenly and your child usually feels much worse.

Common signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever over 100° F which typically lasts 2-5 days
  • Aching muscles - especially in your back, arms and legs
  • Headache
  • Fatigue, weakness and extreme exhaustion
  • Cough and chest discomfort
  • Congestion, sore throat, vomiting and diarrhea

Is the flu dangerous to my child?

For most people, seasonal flu isn't dangerous, but some children may be at a highrisk for developing complications. The most common and most serious complication is pneumonia.

Influenza complications are most common in children younger than 5 years old, and especially in those less than 2 years old. Children with chronic health problems like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and disorders of the brain or nervous system are also at especially high risk of developing serious complications.

How can I help protect my child from the flu?

Flu vaccine. The single most effective way to prevent influenza is by getting the annual flu vaccine for yourself and your child. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against 3 influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during that season. Since the influenza virus changes slightly from year to year, you need a new flu vaccine before each flu season. The vaccine is typically available as an injection or nasal spray.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu vaccination for anyone over the age of 6 months. The vaccine is especially important for certain children who are high risk for complications including children younger than 5 years of age and any child with chronic health problems. Adults who are caregivers or in close contact with young children or children with chronic health problems should also consider receiving the flu vaccine.

Vaccine side effects. The most common side effect of the flu vaccine is soreness at the injection site. Other possible side effects include body aches, headache, and low-grade fever. The viruses from inactivated flu vaccine have been killed, so you cannot get influenza from the vaccine. For most children, the risk of complications from the vaccine is much less than the risk of complications from being infected with the flu.

Infection control. Since the flu vaccine doesn't guarantee you won't get the flu, it's important to take measures to reduce the spread of infection including:

  • Frequent hand washing with soap and water. You can also use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water are not available.
  • Cover your mouth and nose while coughing and sneezing with the sleeve of your shirt. Throw away used tissues in the trash.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.

Please contact your pediatrician with questions regarding the flu shot and which one is best for your child.

What should I do if my child gets sick?

Treat symptoms. For most children, drinking plenty of fluids, rest, and pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®) is all they will need to feel better.

Antiviral treatment. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines. If your child is severely ill and/or has risk factors for developing complications, he or she may need an antiviral medicine. Taking antiviral medicines within the first 48 hours after you first notice symptoms may reduce the length of your illness and help prevent complications. Antibiotics are not useful for treating viral illnesses such as influenza.

It is very important that you talk with a doctor first to make sure your child’s symptoms are correctly diagnosed.

When to see a doctor?

Most people recover from the flu within 1-2 weeks. However, since serious complications of the flu can occur, contact a healthcare provider if your child seems very sick. Warning signs may include trouble breathing, bluish or gray skin color, chest pain, irritability, not waking up easily, not drinking enough fluids, or a fever with a rash. If your child has flu symptoms and is at risk of complications, see your pediatrician immediately. Also seek medical attention if your child gets better from the flu but gets sick again with a fever and cough.

If your child is sick with a flu-like illness, they should stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.

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