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What to do if you think your child has the flu

January 20, 2015

This year has been a particularly difficult flu season, and it’s not over yet. Experts estimate that we’re about halfway through the season (although the flu virus can often be unpredictable), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported an alarming number of hospitalizations and flu-related deaths. Especially concerning is the number of pediatric deaths related to the flu; 26 children have died this year from flu-related illnesses, and we know from previous experience that there are likely more that haven’t been reported.

This year’s predominant flu strain is especially nasty, and the influenza vaccine hasn’t been as effective as it has in years past. People are getting sicker and suffering more serious complications, and children are extremely vulnerable to the ravages of this illness.

With several more weeks of a difficult flu season on the horizon, here’s what you need to know if the flu strikes:

Recognize the symptoms

If your child experiences these symptoms, it could be the flu:
  • Joint or muscle aches, often severe
  • High fever
  • Chills or shakes
  • Sore throat
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Vomiting or stomach pain

See your child’s doctor as soon as possible

If you suspect the flu, see your pediatrician as soon as you can. There are medications that may be able to help shorten the time and lessen the severity of the illness, and the sooner your child gets them the better they will work. Don’t wait.

Encourage plenty of rest and hydration, and try to limit exposure to others in order to limit the spread of the illness.

Know whether your child is considered high-risk for complications

Young children are considered high risk for complications from the flu. Children under the age of 5 years old, and especially children under the age of 2 years old can suffer severe complications such as pneumonia and even death.

Also, children with chronic illnesses such as these are at increased risk:

  • Asthma
  • Neurological and developmental disorders
  • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
  • Cystic fibrosis and other chronic lung diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Kidney disorders
  • Liver disorders
  • Metabolic and mitochondrial disorders
  • Morbid obesity
  • Immune deficiencies
Pregnant women and women who have given birth in the last two weeks are also at higher risk for complications.

Talk with your doctor about whether your child needs antiviral medications

Research has shown that many people are not aware that the flu can be treated with medication. However, you need to know that there are prescription antiviral medications available that have been shown to reduce symptoms, shorten the duration of the illness, prevent serious complications (such as pneumonia) and prevent the need for hospitalizations. These medications are not used often enough, according to the CDC, and are especially important for those at high risk of complications, including young children.

Antiviral medications are most effective when they are started within 48 hours of the beginning of flu symptoms, but have been shown to be beneficial even if they’re started later. In fact, experts recommend that antiviral medication can and should be considered even before the flu diagnosis can be confirmed through lab testing.

There are two different antiviral medications that have been shown to be safe and effective in children. Oseltamivir (brand name: Tamiflu) is approved for use in children as young as two weeks of age, and zanamivir (brand name: Relenza) can be used in children 5 years of age and older. They are usually prescribed for 5 days, although hospitalized patients may need longer treatment.

If your child is showing signs of illness consistent with the flu virus, talk to your doctor to determine whether antiviral medications could help decrease the length and severity of your child’s illness.

But my child was vaccinated, can she still get the flu?

Unfortunately, yes. But that doesn’t mean that the flu vaccine isn’t important. The flu vaccine is still the best way to prevent illness due to the flu virus. Even if your child does get the flu after having been vaccinated, the vaccine can still offer some protection. It’s not too late. Get the vaccine if you haven’t already.

For more information about the flu virus, check out the CDC’s website here.