As everyone begins the transition to fall weather, many people have already been suffering through some sort of cold. From a sore throat to a stuffy nose, cough and everything in between, the first of the winter bugs are upon us. But lurking out there and not too far away is a much more menacing germ known as the flu.
If you’re looking for the best medicine when it comes to the flu, your best option is prevention, according to Brenda Grass, MD, an Agnesian HealthCare internal medicine/pediatrics physician.
“The flu vaccine helps prevent you from getting the flu,” Dr. Grass explains. “If you do get the flu and have had a flu shot, it can make it less severe and can keep you from spreading it to other family members, especially children under six months who are unable to get the flu vaccine.”
The flu is much more dangerous for infants, young children and the elderly. These are the groups of people that have the most complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, and are more likely to be hospitalized. Sometimes these cases can even result in death.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported 179 fatalities in the pediatric population from flu. Except for the 2009 pandemic, the 2017-18 pediatric deaths were the highest since 2004, and 49 percent occurred in previously healthy children.
In the zero to four year age range, as many as about 60 per 100,000 are hospitalized. The earliest a child can receive the flu shot is six months of age. It’s important for them to have the flu shot at this age, because a young infant can have the most complications if the flu is contracted.
“We recommend that everyone over six months of age and older get a seasonal flu vaccine each year by the end of October,” according to Kim Mueller, Fond du Lac County Health department health officer/director. “However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue throughout flu season, even in January or later. Keep in mind that vaccination is especially important for certain people who are high risk or who are in close contact with high risk individuals. This includes children at high risk for developing complications from flu illness, and adults who are close contacts of those children.”
Flu vaccines are updated each season if necessary to protect against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season.
Each year researchers study which strains of flu will be prevalent for that year and “match” the flu vaccine to those types. “The flu shot contains a very small amount of flu antigen,” according to Dr. Grass. “When you get the flu vaccine, your body recognizes the flu virus or antigen as a foreign trespasser and will produce antibodies to it. The next time your body encounters the flu virus it will remember, and will guard against the virus.”
Along with the flu vaccine, prevention consists of good habits. “Preventing the flu is just like preventing any viral illness,” Dr. Grass explains. “Good hand washing, not sharing food or drink and keeping your daily environment clean will help.”
A flu virus is often passed from child to child through sneezing or coughing. The virus can also live for a short time on surfaces. This includes doorknobs, toys, pens or pencils, keyboards, phones and tablets, and countertops. It can also be passed through shared eating utensils and drinking. A child can get a flu virus by touching something that was touched by an infected person, and then touching his or her mouth, nose or eyes.
The flu can be packaged in various symptoms.
“Many signs of the flu can mimic other viruses,” says Dr. Grass. “Children will typically have fevers and chills, cough, sore throat, fatigue, generalized muscle aches, headache and congestion, and sometimes, diarrhea. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate the flu from another virus. However, the flu can lead to complications, like pneumonia or seizures in children.”
If you suspect your child has the flu, you should take them to see their health care provider in the first 48 hours.
“If the flu is diagnosed in this time range, Tamiflu, an antiviral agent, can be prescribed and can sometimes shorten the course of the flu illness,” according to Dr. Grass. “Supportive care is also important for taking care of a child with the flu at home. It’s helpful to give them Motrin or Tylenol to help reduce fever, and also make sure they are receiving plenty of fluids so the child does not get dehydrated. The general rule is to stay home from school until fever free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.”
To learn more about flu prevention and treatment, visit www.healthlibrary.agnesian.com.