Flu is the short term for influenza. It is an illness caused by a respiratory virus. Influenza epidemics often occur in the winter months, although the flu season extends from the beginning of October through March. The infection can spread rapidly through communities as the virus is passed from person to person. When someone with the flu coughs or sneezes, the influenza virus gets into the air, and people nearby, including children, can inhale it. The virus also can be spread when your child touches a hard surface, such as a door handle, and then places his hand or fingers in his nose or rubs his eye.
When there is an outbreak or epidemic, usually during the winter months, the illness tends to be most pronounced in preschool or school age children. Adult caregivers are easily exposed and can contract the disease. The virus usually is transmitted in the first several days of the illness.
You can suspect that your child has the flu if you observe the following signs or symptoms:
- Sudden onset of fever (usually above 101 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38.3 degrees Celsius)
- Chills and shakes accompanying the fever
- Extreme tiredness or fatigue
- Muscle aches and pains
- Dry, hacking cough
After the first few days of these symptoms, a sore throat, stuffy nose, and continuing cough become most evident. The flu can last a week or even longer. A child with a common cold usually has a lower fever, a runny nose, and only a small amount of coughing. Children with the flu—or adults, for that matter—usually feel much sicker, more achy, and more miserable.
Healthy people, especially children, get over the flu in about a week or two, without any lingering problems. However, you might suspect a complication if your child says that his ear hurts or that he feels congested in his face and head or if his cough and fever persist.
Children who appear to have the greatest risk of complications from the flu are those with an underlying chronic medical condition, such as heart or lung disease, an immune problem, some blood diseases, or malignancy. As these children may have more severe disease or complications, they should, when possible, be kept away from children with the flu. Their pediatrician may suggest additional precautions that should be taken. If your child has flulike symptoms along with any difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away.
For all children with the flu who don’t feel well, lots of tender loving care is in order. Children can benefit from extra bed rest, extra fluids, and light, easy- to-digest meals. A cool mist humidifier or vaporizer in the room may add additional moisture to the air and make breathing through inflamed mucous membranes of the nose a little easier.
If your child is uncomfortable because of a fever, acetaminophen or ibuprofen in doses recommended by your pediatrician for his age and weight will help him feel better.
Ibuprofen is approved for use in children six months of age and older; however, it should never be given to children who are dehydrated or who are vomiting continuously.
It is extremely important not to give aspirin to a child who has the flu or is suspected of having the flu. Aspirin during bouts of influenza is associated with an increased risk of developing Reye syndrome.
Since the flu virus is transmitted from person to person, a first step you can take to decrease the chances of family members getting the flu is to practice and teach good hygiene such as frequent hand- washing. If, for example, you have a child with the flu, do the following to prevent its spread:
- Avoid kissing your infected child on or around the mouth, although he will need plenty of hugs during the illness.
- Teach your child to cough or sneeze into a tissue or his arm, and if a tissue is used, make certain it is disposed of properly.
- Make sure you and other caregivers wash hands both before and after caring for your child.
- Wash your child’s utensils in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher.
- Don’t allow others to share drinking glasses or utensils, and never share toothbrushes.
- Use disposable paper cups in the bathroom and kitchen.
- Talk with your physician about giving antiviral medication to other household members over one year of age to prevent them from contracting the flu.
There is a vaccine to protect against the flu. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the influenza vaccination be given annually to all healthy children starting at six months of age. Flu vaccines are especially important for children at high risk for complications from the flu such as those with a chronic disease such as asthma. If a child younger than nine years old is being vaccinated for influenza for the first time, or only received one dose for the first time last flu season, he should be given two doses of the vaccine at least four weeks apart. Adults who live in the same household as someone who has a high risk for flu complications or who care for children under the age of five years should receive the flu vaccine yearly. The flu vaccine also can be given to any child whose parent requests it, although it is not approved for use in infants younger than six months old.
A nasal flu vaccine is also available for healthy children at least two years old. There is no needle involved, it is simply sprayed into the nose, and is as effective as the flu injection. The flu vaccine has few side effects. However, all flu vaccines are produced using eggs, so anyone who has an egg allergy should speak to their pediatrician or allergist about whether or not they should receive the flu vaccine. If a child or an adult has had a serious allergic reaction to eggs or egg products, you should discuss this with your pediatrician.
Antiviral medications to treat an influenza infection are now available by prescription. Such treatments must be initiated within forty- eight hours of the beginning of illness. Also, for chronically ill children, preventing influenza is important. If the child has not been immunized, using antiviral medication before the exposed child gets the disease can reduce the risk of infection.