Cold and flu season are here, but are you and your children protected? Vanessa Slots, MD, of Renown Medical Group – Pediatrics, explains why it’s important to immunize each season, especially for the very young and elderly.
It happens like clockwork — the onset of an influenza epidemic as fall transitions into winter, and lasts into the spring months. This acute respiratory illness is caused by influenza A or B viruses with yearly outbreaks occurring worldwide. No one is immune and everyone is susceptible to the flu.
The classic, uncomplicated signs of the flu virus are simple enough to detect — abrupt onset of fever, headache, body aches and fatigue along with respiratory-tract symptoms including cough, sore throat and an irritated nose.
Who’s at Risk?
Children and the elderly, however, are at greater risk of complication from influenza, specifically toddlers less than 2 years. At this age, immunities are underdeveloped. Seniors over 65 are also at increased risk because their immune systems have weakened with age.
The severity of a child’s symptoms depend on age and prior exposure to the virus. And with young children, flu is more problematic since they cannot verbalize certain symptoms like body aches and headaches. As a result, children often experience higher fevers, which can lead to seizures or convulsions. Coupled with gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and poor appetite, children are at risk of dehydration and other complications from the virus that can require hospitalization. In fact, an average of 20,000 children are hospitalized from flu each year.
Pre-existing health issues including but not limited to asthma, cystic fibrosis, heart conditions, cerebral palsy, epilepsy or diabetes can intensify flu symptoms. Still, a substantial number of children with none of these risk factors experience severe complications from the flu.
The flu is not a passing cold. It is a serious illness that takes lives every year. Last flu season, 68 children’s lives were claimed by the flu.
How to Protect Your Child from the Flu
The best way to guard against influenza is with a flu shot. Children and adults should get the flu vaccine before flu season kicks in — usually by the end of October. Shots are provided as long as flu viruses are circulating and the vaccine is in supply.
So what dose does your child need? Children 6 months to 8 years require two doses of influenza vaccine during their first vaccination season to optimize their immune response. Each subsequent year, children require only a single standard dose.
For the upcoming flu season, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest an inactivated influenza vaccine — the shot — for all patients. The recent recommendation against use of the nasal spray is based on less effectiveness against influenza A and B during and after the 2013-14 season.
Like any vaccine, the influenza vaccine does not guarantee 100 percent coverage. However, if someone receives the vaccine and still develops influenza, symptoms tend to be less severe and don’t last as long.
So play it smart. Even if your children are healthy, robust and rarely get sick, they are still vulnerable to the flu and a shot is absolutely necessary. Immunization is the single most effective way to prevent the flu. You can further minimize risk by teaching your children to wash their hands often with soap and water, cover coughs and sneezes, and avoid those who might be sick.
If your child does develop the flu, symptoms can last seven to 10 days and are contagious until your child is fever-free for 24 hours. However, antiviral medications taken within the first 48 hours of developing symptoms can shorten the duration of the illness by one to two days and even mitigate symptoms. Only serious complications, such as dehydration, require hospitalization.
When it comes to getting over influenza, rest and hydration are just as important as medication. So if your child comes down with uncomplicated flu symptoms, consult your healthcare provider. But some time off from school, a Netflix marathon and a pile of good books and a never-ending supply of fluids may be just what the doctor ordered.
This story was also published in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source on Oct. 30, 2016.