By Brenda Goodman
WebMD Health News
The U.S. flu season has reached epidemic levels and flu-like illnesses continued to increase through the end of January in all regions of the country, according to the latest numbers from the CDC.
An epidemic may sound alarming, but it’s a medical term that means cases have passed a threshold set by the agency. Flu seasons typically reach epidemic levels for at least a few weeks in the winter and spring.
The primary strain, H3N2, appears to be hitting children and the elderly particularly hard, especially if they have an underlying medical condition like diabetes or asthma. The CDC also reports that 15 children under age 18 have died of the flu so far this season. Fifteen is about average for this point in the season. From 2015 to 2016, 89 children died of the flu; the season before that 148 succumbed to the flu.
We talked to WebMD medical editor and practicing pediatrician Hansa Bhargava, MD, about protecting young children. Here is her best advice for keeping kids safe when the flu virus is lurking.
WebMD: What symptoms should parents be watching for?
Bhargava: The first symptoms often look similar to a cold — cough and fatigue. The flu is different than a cold, however, in that you usually have a high fever — 102 or higher, usually — that can last for days, and a headache. Kids also complain of body aches and may lie around not really wanting to do anything. If kids are active and happy and have the sniffles or a low-grade fever, it probably isn’t the flu.
Parents often ask me if I can test for the flu. I can run a quick test in my office, but that test isn’t very sensitive. It generates a lot of false negatives, meaning a child could have the flu and the test would be negative, so I tend to rely more on my clinical impression of the child’s symptoms to make the call.
WebMD: What should parents do if they think their child might have the flu? When should they call the doctor?
Bhargava: It depends on the age of the child. Any time a child under the age of 3 months has a fever, that’s an automatic call to the doctor. Anytime a child has a fever under the age of 2 years — and your child’s vaccinations are up to date — if the fever lasts for more than 24 hours, call your doctor. For an older child, if the fever lasts more than 48 hours, call your doctor. As a parent, your gut feeling is always the most important thing. If you think something is wrong, call the doctor.
Getting to the doctor early is particularly important for infants and children with other underlying medical conditions like asthma. In those cases, your doctor might choose to prescribe an antiviral medication, but those medications are only effective if started in the first day or two of illness.
WebMD: The flu season is in full swing. Isn’t it too late to vaccinate?
Bhargava: No! You should absolutely get them a flu shot. It’s true that it takes two weeks for the shot to become fully effective, but flu season could continue well into March, and kids can be exposed to different strains, so getting the shot can still be helpful. Flu vaccinations are recommended for all children over the age of 6 months.
WebMD: In addition to the vaccine, what else can parents do to help protect kids?
Bhargava: Wash, wash, wash their hands! Have kids wash their hands before meals and when coming home after school. Also, teach your kids to cough and sneeze into their shoulder or the crook of an elbow, since that keeps germs off hands and prevents droplets of mucus from spreading. Kids may start to cough and sneeze before it’s apparent that they are sick, so having them practice good hygiene all the time is really important. Also, teach kids not to share food or drinks with others.