This article originally appeared in the Dec. 6, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Families impatiently await many things each year (holiday break, anyone?) but flu season isn’t one of them. Whether we asked for it or not, flu season has arrived in full force much earlier this year.
Doctors expect to see flu cases begin in December and January, but SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and other medical facilities began seeing children with flu in October this year. Health care professionals aren’t sure what causes an early flu season but have identified this year’s flu type as Influenza B—a different flu strain than the one that made the rounds last year.
The number one way to protect yourself and others from the flu is receiving a flu vaccination. This year’s vaccine is very effective in protecting you from Influenza B and other types of flu that may surface. Experts recommend that everyone over six months old receive a flu shot. In families with a baby younger than six months old, it is crucial that all family members receive a flu shot. Baby may be too young to be vaccinated but having a family protected from the flu so you can’t bring it home to the baby is the next best thing.
There is a myth that receiving a flu shot will make you sick. This is simply not true. You cannot get the flu from a flu shot; however, you are much more likely to get it if you are not vaccinated. If you are concerned about a flu shot, your doctor should be able to address your concerns and help you make the best decision for you.
Because the flu is such a common illness, many people believe it is only an inconvenience that may sideline them while they recover on the couch watching daytime TV for a few days. This may be true for some people but most experience much more severe symptoms of the flu—especially children.
“We have seen a number of children admitted to the hospital with severe cases of flu already this season,” said Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon and associate professor of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “Younger children especially can become very sick from this type of flu. People can underestimate the flu and assume it’s not a big deal but it can be a serious illness.”
Flu symptoms include a high fever (which may be even higher in children than adults), coughing, problems breathing and vomiting as a result of the cough. In most cases, the flu will resolve by itself after a few days of rest and drinking lots of fluids, but some symptoms warrant a trip to the pediatrician.
“If a child is having difficulty breathing and really making an effort to take a breath, it’s time for them to see a pediatrician,” Haller said. “Flu really affects the respiratory system. When kids are coughing a lot and having trouble breathing, a doctor will need to address that.”
Because kids with flu can have trouble breathing, their fluid intake can go way down so parents should also watch for dehydration. If a child goes more than 10 hours without urinating, parents should contact their doctor with their concern. In babies, that time frame drops to six to eight hours.
Common hygiene practices can help prevent the spread of flu. Washing your hands frequently and using hand sanitizer are good practices during flu season. If you are feeling under the weather and suspect you have the flu, consider staying home from work and limiting contact with others. When you have to cough, cough into your elbow rather than your hands to prevent the spread of germs.
The flu season may have arrived early, but that does not mean getting the flu is inevitable. Take some measures to protect yourself and your family and you will stay healthy this flu season.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.