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                The school year has hit full stride and, for the most part, those blistering days of summer 2007 are behind us. With fall coming in less than two weeks, some familiar but unwelcome visitors – influenza and other respiratory illnesses – will soon come to call.

The season for respiratory illnesses, such as influenza, RSV and bronchiolitis, can begin in early October.  Now is a good time to ask your child’s pediatrician about influenza vaccinations to be given this fall if your child will be in the 6-month to 59-month age group.

            The flu brings with it an annoying group of symptoms that includes high fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and body aches. Children can also have diarrhea and vomiting. These respiratory symptoms can also occur with other illnesses, including the common cold. 

A major risk with flu is that it can develop into more serious illnesses, such as bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma, cystic fibrosis or diabetes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that around 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year with flu and associated illnesses.

If you think your child is sick enough to see a doctor, I generally recommend calling your child’s pediatrician before making a trip to the emergency room.  He or she can help you to decide whether a trip to the ER is warranted.

Most children who have the flu just need to get plenty of liquids and rest until the virus can run its course (which takes about a week).  You can give them medications to relieve flu symptoms, but stay away from aspirin, particularly if your child has a fever. This is because a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome can result from giving aspirin to young people with influenza symptoms.

            In addition to immunization, there are things you and your children can do to avoid the flu, which is spread in airborne droplets from coughing and sneezing. The Centers for Disease Control says the following steps can help to prevent spread of the flu:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw away the tissue.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.  (Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are an acceptable option if soap and water are not readily available.)
  • Stay away (as much as you can) from people who are sick.
  • If you get the flu, stay home from work or school so you don’t make others sick.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth, as the virus enters your body this way, picked up after being on your hands.

The flu can be very unpleasant, especially if it’s your child who is affected.  With proper precautions, including immunization, your chances of avoiding the bug are much greater.

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.  

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