As a parent, the only thing worse than catching the flu yourself is watching as one of your children suffers through it.
And as a pediatrician, I haven’t met a parent yet whose children haven’t had an up-close-and-personal encounter with the flu. Schools, daycare centers, playgrounds – and pretty much anywhere else children gather – are breeding grounds for the flu, which is, after all, a contagious viral infection that requires minimum contact to spread.
Each year at Hoag, we see hundreds of people of all ages with the flu or flu-like symptoms. More severe than cold symptoms, flu symptoms usually include some or all of the following: chills, fever, sore throat, body aches, cough, poor appetite, headaches and dizziness.
While there is no cure for the flu, there is a prevention that works: The flu vaccine. It’s not 100% effective (this year’s vaccine is about 60% effective), but given how horrible the flu is to experience – and to watch your child experience – I’ll take some protection over no protection at all.
Flu vaccine does not “give” a person the flu. The virus being injected is dead. The only thing it is doing is “teaching” your child’s body how to fight off the virus if he or she encounters it for real.
Fortunately, the majority of flu cases don’t require a visit to the doctor or emergency room. However, it can be especially dangerous – and even fatal – for children under 5 years old, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women. If not treated properly, it can lead to more severe conditions including pneumonia and bacterial infections.
Most bouts of the flu run their course in about five days to a week, so time, rest (and patience) prevail in the end. But there are some very important things we can do to 1) help prevent the flu from afflicting us and our children, and 2) helping them through it as quickly and comfortably as possible if it hits.
- First, get vaccinated. I know I mentioned this already, but it bears repeating. Annual flu shots are recommended for anyone 6 months and older. Researchers spend a great amount of time each year developing a vaccine for the influenza strain or strains expected to circulate in a given season. Getting vaccinated is a major step in protecting you and your loved ones.
- Be a germ slayer. Know what the top 10 carriers of infectious agents are? Your fingers! Be sure to wash your hands, and make sure your children do the same, regularly … especially before and after meals and after socializing with other children at school, on the playground, and even at home.
- Wipe runny noses – and then wash your hands (are you seeing a pattern?). Oh, and be sure to throw away the tissue each time you use one. While we’re on the subject of noses, try to teach your children not to touch or rub them (as well as their eyes and mouth) excessively, because that’s one of the main ways germs spread.
- Teach your children to cough into a sleeve, and then to get into the habit of immediately washing their hands.
- Keep bathroom and kitchen countertops and faucet handles clean and disinfected.
OK, so you’ve done all of the above — and still your child caught the flu. Don’t panic. Remember, most bouts of the flu come and go in several days. Here are a few time-tested ways to get them (and you) through it as painlessly as possible.
- Rest. Keep them out of school, away from siblings and friends, in bed and occupied with books, movies or (don’t tell them I told you this) homework.
- Make sure they drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, a common side effect of the flu.
- Chills and fever also are common with the flu, so dress them in layers that they can remove/put on, and have blankets handy, as the need arises.
- To ease minor aches and pains and general discomfort, it’s OK to give them appropriate doses of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Avoid aspirin.
- When to call your doctor: As I mentioned, the overwhelming majority of flu cases don’t necessitate a call or visit to the doctor. However, there are times when they are warranted. These include a fever lasting more than four days; moderate to severe dehydration, and/or a bad cough and shortness of breath, which could indicate the onset of pneumonia. If they seem very ill and we see them within the first 48 hours of symptoms, we may be able to treat with a medication.
Getting the flu is no fun for anyone, and few of us avoid it our entire lives. But with proper hygiene and vaccinations, the number of times we have to deal with the flu, and the severity of our illness, can be greatly reduced.