To date, it has been an unbelievably quiet flu season throughout the country. But with that being said there is still some flu and there could be more to come, this is typically the time of year that flu begins to peak.
So, what is the flu? Flu is short for influenza which is a viral infection of the nose, throat and lungs. There are many different types of influenza viruses and different viruses circulate each year. Since the flu viruses change each year a new vaccine is released every year to cover the 3 expected strains of flu for the season.
The most common symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches headaches, chills and fatigue. In younger children the flu may also cause some vomiting and diarrhea. Occasionally, some people with the flu will not have fever, but this is not common. You typically feel a lot sicker with the flu than with a cold and most people really go to bed, or at least the couch while sick with the flu. Even toddlers and children slow down!
The flu is spread by respiratory droplets which occur when a person with the flu coughs, or sneezes or talks. These viral droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby (maybe even several feet away). At the same time a person might pick up these droplets by touching something, like a door knob, telephone, or a computer that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or nose. It really is very easily spread.
Did you also know that the people who may not yet be sick, or are just starting to feel "icky" may spread the virus unknowingly? The virus may be shed for a day prior to actually getting sick and up to 5 - 7 days after having the flu. Even with the best intentions it is impossible to predict when you will get sick or exactly how long you shed virus after starting to feel better. The only good prevention is to cover your mouth when you cough, wash your hands frequently and try to keep from touching your hands to your own face. Easier said than done.
Because the flu is a virus, antibiotics won't help. I repeat, antibiotics don't work. The treatment of the flu is entirely symptomatic, in other words treat the fever, body aches, cough etc. Flu typically puts a person to bed for a few days and the fever is usually significant. Treat the fever with either acetaminophen or ibuprofen and NEVER use aspirin. I also prescribe throat lozenges, hot tea, popsicles for sore throats, and lots of fluids. In most cases children don't have a big appetite when they are sick, and neither will you if you get the flu, so just make sure they are drinking and hydrated. As they start feeling better their appetite will return. There are antiviral medications specifically for the flu and these drugs may be used more frequently for children under the age of 2 or for children with underlying medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease. These medications need to be started within the first 2 days of flu to be effective and will be prescribed in certain circumstances, so call your doctor to discuss this.
To prevent spreading the flu, you should keep your child home while they are sick and for 24 hours after they become fever free (and that means without using fever reducing medication!). Most people with the flu have a lingering cough and fatigue which may last another 7 - 10 days. Flu is definitely not fun and may affect the entire family.
Lastly, the best way to prevent getting the flu is by getting vaccinated. It is still not too late, (never too late unless you are already sick).
I'm Dr. Sue with The Kid's Doctor helping parents take charge
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