Children and the Flu: What Parents Need to Know

portrait of man Feb. 2, 2018 – This year’s hard hitting flu season is making headlines across the country, particularly as it relates to flu deaths in otherwise healthy people, including 53 children. While pediatric deaths from flu happen every year, Neil Goodman, M.D., board-certified pediatrician at Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Brunswick Pediatrics, a strategic affiliate of Southeast Georgia Health System, says we are experiencing an extremely severe strain this year, underscoring the need for parents to respect the flu.

“The flu takes no prisoners,” says Goodman. “It will affect anyone and everyone, but young children are at greater risk for contracting the flu because their immune systems are naïve to the experience of combatting the flu. That is why every child six months and older should get a flu shot annually.”

Goodman also points out the flu is not a cold. While in most cases it can be managed with home care — usually five days — parents need to understand and recognize the differences in the onset of symptoms and be on the lookout for worsening symptoms. Left untreated, flu can lead to secondary infections such as pneumonia, pulmonary distress and other organ failures.

Typically cold symptoms come on and progress slowly with a runny nose, cough or a low grade fever. With the flu there is a rapid onset of symptoms including fever over 102°, body aches, shivers, and diarrhea and vomiting are not uncommon in children.

“If a child is drinking plenty of fluids, is interactive with family members and the fever is responding to Tylenol and/or Motrin, we would recommend continued rest at home until 24 hours after a child is symptom free, meaning no fever, cough or nasal congestion,” notes Goodman. “But parents know best when their child isn’t acting normal, and I tell them to always trust their gut instinct.”

Where the concern comes in is when: a child has started to feel better, then symptoms suddenly worsen; fever can’t be controlled with medication; the child is not drinking and is sleeping too much. Then it is time to call your child’s doctor.

See immediate medical attention is necessary when:

  • Child exhibits fast breathing or can’t seem to catch their breath.
  • Lip color appears blue.
  • There is a lack of urination.
  • Child has an uncontrolled fever and cough.
  • There is a noticeable change in mental status or child appears delirious.

“This is when you take your child directly to the emergency room, especially if they have an underlying health condition such as asthma, diabetes, an immune deficiency or other illness.” Goodman insists.

Preventing the Spread of Flu

While the headlines have put the focus on treating the flu, it is what you do to prevent the spread of flu that is equally as important. As mentioned above, getting the flu shot is the single most important step everyone six months and older can take to prevent or minimize the spread of the flu virus.

“What people need to understand is that flu is a moving target, which is why its effectiveness varies from year to year,” explains Goodman. “This year’s vaccine is reported to be about 15 percent effective and its makeup is based on flu strains that were predicted a year ago. So researchers correctly identified H3N2 as prominent strain to vaccinate against this year, however the virus mutates meaning the circulating strain is different in September than what we see in December.”

“Add in the fact flu season started earlier than usual this year when not as many people had been vaccinated yet,” Goodman continues. “So getting a flu shot not only helps prevent the spread of flu, it will result in a milder case if you contract a strain not covered in the vaccine. Also, by getting flu shots annually your body builds greater flu immunity over time.”

Additionally, everyone needs to do their part to help protect others. Goodman says:

  • If you are sick, stay home from daycare, school or work until 24 hours after you are symptom-free.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Wash and sanitize common area surfaces and door knobs at home. Don’t forget game and TV controllers, toys, etc.
  • If caring for someone with the flu, don’t touch your face.
  • Keep kids with the flu separated from other family members to minimize the spread of the virus.
  • When someone at home has the flu, talk to your doctor about prescribing Tamiflu as a preventative for other members of the family.