Given the amount of information in the media regarding the current flu season, it is no wonder that parents are confused about what is best. While the decision to immunize your child ultimately is yours as a parent, make sure you have all the facts before you make a healthy, informed decision. Here are some basic, up-to-date guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What are the signs and symptoms of influenza?
Individuals infected with influenza virus may present to their doctor with symptoms that include a runny nose, sore throat, fever, headaches, muscles aches, and a bad cough. Less commonly, people may complain of vomiting and diarrhea. Influenza infection behaves like a bad cold that ‘comes on like gangbusters’: the symptoms are intense and they typically start acutely.
This year in particular, it is important to recognize that when many parents speak of “the flu” they are referring to a stomach flu, which is characterized by vomiting and diarrhea. Stomach flu is different from influenza, which is more of a respiratory illness and less of a stomach ailment.
How can I know if my child has the seasonal flu or the H1N1 flu?
In general, there are two types of influenza virus. One causes seasonal flu and the other causes H1N1 flu (also known as ‘swine flu’). The symptoms can be similar for both viruses. The only way to know for sure if your child is infected with influenza is by a lab test (usually a nasal swab). Many pediatricians can test for the seasonal flu in their offices, whereas testing for the H1N1 virus is usually done at a hospital or state laboratory. Since both infections are usually treated the same way, many physicians do not test to differentiate one influenza virus from the other.
How does the flu spread?
Both flu viruses are spread from person to person by coughing or sneezing, which creates minute droplets of saliva that are very contagious. Shared surfaces (doors, tables, desks, toilets) can be vectors for infection if contaminated with these droplets.
When is the flu contagious?
The contagious period for the flu includes the day before the symptoms start and the febrile period—usually 4 to 5 days. The present recommendations suggest that an infected individual stay home for 7 days.
How can we prevent the spread of the flu?
For practical purposes, the spread of influenza cannot be completely prevented, but good hand washing techniques are a must. Hand sanitizers seem to be doing a good job so far. Teach your children to cough and sneeze into their elbows. This allows less contamination on their hands as they touch the next item and potentially spread the germs.
How should I treat my child if I suspect that she has influenza?
You may treat the symptoms with acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and discomfort. You may also give cold fluids in unlimited amounts and dress lightly. For a mild sore throat, give the one-year-old warm chicken broth and the six-year-old hard candy. All family members must practice good hand washing techniques.
Contact your physician if you have any of the following concerns: your child looks ill, has a fever that lasts more than 3 to 4 days, has a severe cough, has an ear ache, or has a recurrent fever (the fever returns after being gone for over 24 hours). It is of particular concern if your child is symptomatic and is under 6 months of age. Please call first before you come for a visit! Physician’s waiting rooms are potential breading grounds for the virus and back entrances will be used this year for sick children whenever possible.
Which children are at high risk?
High-risk children include those with:
– Lung disease (asthma, cystic fibrosis and bronchopulmonary dysplasia)
– Heart disease (congenital heart disease, rheumatic fever)
– Muscle disease (muscular dystrophy)
– Metabolic disease (diabetes)
– Sickle cell disease
– Cancer or immunosuppressive conditions (HIV)
– Any child on aspirin therapy
– Children 6 month to 4 years
Should my child get the H1N1 flu vaccine?
An initial portion of the H1N1 vaccine will be available by mid-October. If your child is in a high-risk category, then consider H1N1 vaccination.
Once there is enough vaccine available then the recommendations are as follows:
– All young people ages 6 months to 24 years should consider H1N1 vaccination
– All people age 24 to 64 with underlying medical conditions should consider H1N1 vaccination
The vaccine can be obtained from your physician. It is still unclear if we will need one or two doses of the H1N1 vaccine.
Should my child get the seasonal flu vaccine?
It is recommended that all children 6 months and older get the seasonal flu vaccine. Children under 9 need two doses during their first year of vaccination. The vaccine prevents 70 – 90% of seasonal influenza.
Does the seasonal flu vaccine protect against H1N1?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. These are two completely different strains.
For more information visit: www.cdc.gov/H1N1FLU/
Chrystal de Freitas, M.D.
Carmel Valley Pediatrics