The length of “flu season” can vary each year, and while the flu doesn’t always stick to a calendar, there’s still time to get your annual vaccine.
“It is not too late to get a flu vaccine,” said Dr. Megan Brennard of Children’s of Alabama’s emergency department. “The best way to protect yourself is to get the flu vaccine every year.” Brennard said she has seen an increase in the number of positive flu tests in recent weeks at Children’s.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. Like most viruses, it is spread mainly by droplets made when people infected with the flu sneeze, cough or talk. These droplets can travel as far as 6 feet, Brennard said.
Flu can be a serious illness and may be a life-threatening illness for some children. Most healthy children will have mild symptoms, and parents can check with their child’s pediatrician if they have concerns. Children with chronic conditions or young infants are at higher risk for complications of the flu and should be seen by their pediatrician.
An annual flu vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months and older. Brennard said parents should consult with the child’s pediatrician to determine which is the appropriate vaccination for their child, either a shot or a nasal-spray.
Babies under the age of 6 months are at higher risk of getting flu because they are too young for the vaccine. “The best way to protect babies under 6 months old from getting the flu is for parents and other adults around them, such as grandparents and other extended family members, to get vaccinated. It’s also wise to keep babies away from large crowds during flu season,” Brennard said.
In addition to the vaccine, Brennard said you can limit your exposure to the virus by washing hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; wiping down common surfaces like kitchen and bathroom counters and doorknobs; and not sharing items such as eating utensils, towels and bed linens.
Flu symptoms may appear quickly. These symptoms may include a fever, cough, runny nose, fatigue, muscle aches. Sometimes children also experience vomiting and abdominal pain. “Symptoms may last last three to five days, but they could last up to two weeks,” Brennard said. However, if symptoms worsen after two to three days or new symptoms develop, it’s time to consult with doctors again.
Because the flu is caused by a virus, the illness isn’t treated with antibiotics. “Treating the flu is all about supportive care. That means making sure your child is drinking fluids and staying hydrated, giving fever reducing medication and getting rest.” Antiviral medications can be prescribed, but Brennard said that these “aren’t a cure for the flu.” Antiviral medications are recommended for the most serious cases of flu.
For children who have had the flu, Brennard said they are typically cleared to return to school after being fever free (without the aid of fever reducing medicines) for 24 hours.
And even if your family has avoided the flu to this point, it’s always a good idea to be prepared, Brennard said. “Stocking up on supplies in advance is a good way to have your home ready if the flu strikes,” she said. Items such as tissues, hand soap, surface cleaners, disinfectant, a thermometer, drinking water or other electrolyte-based fluids like Gatorade or Pedialyte, and non-prescription medicines like pain relievers and fever reducers are all good to have on hand should a family member get sick.