It’s that time of year: runny noses, fever and coughs that never seem to end. We pediatricians sympathize with parents who spend half the night up with sick children. It’s no fun.
For most healthy adults, winter brings a routine cold that keeps you home from work for a few days while you stock up on chicken soup and cough lozenges, and catch up on saved DVR episodes. However, this is not necessarily the case for thousands of children and other adults, including seniors and pregnant women, who suffer complications of the flu.
Seasonal flu is a serious disease that causes hospitalizations and up to 50,000 deaths every year in the United States. The CDC reports that each year up to 20 percent of Americans get the flu, and annually we also contract one billion colds.
Children get colds and the flu more often than adults, suffering from as many as 12 colds a year, whereas adults catch two to three cold a year. Along with seniors, kids are also among those most at-risk of serious flu complications, especially children younger than 2 years old.
Colds and the flu are both caused by viruses transmitted from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs, sneezes and even talking from up to six feet away. There are more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold, but the flu is exclusively caused by the influenza virus.
Colds and the flu can be difficult to distinguish based on symptoms alone. Generally speaking, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, headache, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and severe.
If you are sick with a flu-like illness, you should stay home until you have been without fever for at least 24 hours without taking fever reducing medication. Keep your children home from school until their fever, vomiting and diarrhea are gone and they feel better for at least 24 hours.
If your child feels very sick, has a high fever or if you are worried, seek out help from your child’s pediatrician. There are specific tests for influenza and treatment to consider if the flu is identified early.
Any baby younger than 3 months old who has a fever over 100.4 F should always be evaluated by a pediatrician. Older children that have a fever over 101 degrees and a rash or fever that persists beyond three days also need medical attention.
Other reasons to take your children to the pediatrician include extreme irritability, rapid or difficulty breathing, stiff neck, persistent ear or throat pain, cough or cold symptoms that last beyond one week or a cough that worsens with time. If your child doesn’t seem to be acting right, never hesitate to bring them in. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
The single best way to protect against the flu is to immunize your children and yourself every year. Flu season usually peaks in January and February and can continue right through the spring. So, call your doctor if you or your children have not yet received your vaccine. You should also avoid contact with people who are sick with a cold or flu symptoms, and wash your hands frequently.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as germs can spread this way. Clean surfaces regularly, and use disposable paper towels to dry your hands and face rather than shared towels. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw the tissue away after you use it.
If you or your child do get sick with a common cold, typically the treatment is supportive — rest, fluids, humidified air, saline nose spray and fever control. Aspirin is not recommended in children under 18, and antibiotics are not used to treat symptoms of a cold or the flu unless a secondary bacterial infection is suspected.
Decongestants, antihistamines and cough medicines have not been proven to have any benefit in children, and the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages parents from using them to avoid overdose and side effects. Basically, you have to ride out the storm. However, by following the preventive measures mentioned, you can increase your chances that your family will get through this cold and flu season successfully.
Lisa Gwynn, D.O., MBA, FAAP,is an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and Director of the Pediatric Mobile Clinic at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.