Now that school has been back in session, more of our children are coming home with the sniffles, a cough, or even some vomiting and diarrhea. Most of these illnesses are easily managed at home for a day or two and your child is back to school. Pretty soon, however, the influenza virus –“the flu” – will be circulating around. This causes a more severe illness and has much more potential for complications. Therefore it is important to be informed about influenza and be prepared to keep your child as healthy as possible during the flu season.
The influenza virus is a smart virus that makes changes every year (and sometimes within the same season) to trick our immune system so that it can infect anyone, even people who have had the flu before. Influenza is not choosy about who it infects. Adults, children, and babies are all susceptible – even if they are healthy and have never been sick before. So please do not say to yourself (or to your doctor): “My child is never sick and has never had the flu, so I know she won’t get it.” This is NOT TRUE!
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When your child has the flu, he will typically develop a sudden fever (at least 100 degrees F and often higher than 102 degrees) along with chills, muscle aches, headache, and lack of energy. Most children also develop a runny nose, nasal stuffiness, sore throat, and a cough. Some also have stomach pain and vomiting. Don’t be confused: if your child only has vomiting and/or diarrhea with no respiratory symptoms and no fever – this is not influenza. Some people refer to this type of illness as “stomach flu,” but actually it is a different virus and has nothing to do with influenza.
Flu (influenza) will likely cause your child to miss about a week of school and the fever lasts three to seven days. However, often there are complications or additional (“secondary”) infections that can develop on top of the flu. This is especially true for children under five years old. The most common secondary infections are ear infections and pneumonia. Young children can develop bronchiolitis (wheezing and shortness of breath). These complications of flu require additional visits to your doctor and can also result in hospitalization.
What can you do to help your child?
If your child develops flu symptoms, call your doctor early. Depending on your child’s age, how long they have been sick, and whether they have other chronic illnesses (like asthma), your child’s doctor may decide to prescribe an antiviral medicine. These medicines work best in the first 48 hours of symptoms. But they do have side effects and are only going to shorten the illness, so they often are not the right choice for your child.
If your child has a fever for more than five days, has ear pain, or has a cough that is not improving after one week, call your doctor again. These are signs of possible complications. If your child is under three months of age or has chronic illnesses, you should have them seen at the office sooner.
There is no treatment for influenza that works 100%. The best thing to do is to give your child rest and plenty of fluids so that their body can fight off the flu virus. Sometimes your doctor will recommend over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), but never use aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) – this can a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome. If your child has a fever but is able to rest comfortably, it may be best to not treat the fever – the fever helps the body fight off the virus.
The most important and useful thing you can do for your child is to get yourself and your child a flu vaccine every year. This may reduce your child’s chances of getting the flu by 60 – 90%. If everyone in a household is vaccinated, it reduces their chance of getting the flu even more. Contact your doctor’s office now– most offices have vaccines available in September and the sooner your child is vaccinated the better.
If your child is under 9-years-old and has never had a flu vaccine, they may require a second dose of flu vaccine one month later.
The benefits of the flu vaccine are far greater than the risks of side effects. There are many myths about the flu vaccine out there. Please discuss any concerns you have with your doctor and check out our blog post from last week on the flu vaccine!
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
The UPMC Adult Congenital Heart Disease (ACHD) Center is a joint program between UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute. We provide long-term care for adolescents, young adults, maternal patients, and adults with congenital heart disease. Our goal is to provide complete care from your childhood all the way through your life. Our team of experts has a wide knowledge of heart conditions.