As if we need any reminders about the serious nature of the flu, this past week proved deadly with seven pediatric deaths throughout the United States. This brought the total for this flu season to almost two dozen. That’s tragic.
News reports of the severity of this flu have triggered a lot of questions from parents, so we wanted to take a moment to talk about exactly what is and is not helpful in dealing with this illness.
The flu is at its peak now and will likely remain at this level for weeks. So, we have a long way to go until this difficult flu season begins to wane.
What IS Helpful
- Get a Flu Shot! That’s right, it is NOT too late in the season to get immunized. We still have a couple months left in this flu season and a vaccine can still help. If your child (or you) have not gotten your flu shot yet, please do so immediately. It’s nowhere near 100% effective, but even a 30% success rate is well worth the hassle if it helps keep your child healthy.
- Recognize Flu-Like Symptoms. 1) As compared to the common cold, flu symptoms are rapid-onset whereas the cold starts more gradually. 2) High fever and chills are hallmarks of the flu, but not the common cold. 3) Finally, we typically see body aches and weakness with the flu, and even sensitive skin.
- See the Doctor. Get in right away, at the onset of flu-like symptoms. There can be other complications and secondary infections that need to be addressed. Indeed, it’s these complications that are generally the cause of the hospitalizations and deaths that sometime occur with flu, so we need to check for them.
- Treat the Symptoms. Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and stays hydrated. Water, sports drinks (although limited because they are loaded with sugar), and Grandma’s chicken soup are all great options. Also, try to minimize the patient’s interaction with healthy family members and friends so the flu doesn’t “tear through the whole house” as is often the case. Make sure everyone diligently washes their hands and avoids touching their faces.
What IS NOT Helpful
This is just as important as what is helpful, if not more, so please take a moment to read below.
- Antibiotics! Influenza is a virus. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.
- Antibiotics “just in case”. When you have the flu, your body is in full “fight” mode diverting all of its resources toward that particular virus. This can create opportunity for secondary infections to sneak in. When those secondary infections are bacterial, then – and only then – can antibiotics help. But as we discuss below, prescribing antibiotics when they’re not needed is bad medicine.
- Antibiotics so we feel like we’re “at least doing SOMETHING!”. It’s a helpless feeling to watch your child suffer, and all of us parents want to feel like we’re doing something to help. But this is where short-term feelings can really harm long-term health. We have a serious problem with antibiotic overuse. It has created increasingly-resistant “bugs” that are harder and harder to control with our existing antibiotics. Therefore, we (and every other responsible medical practice) will not prescribe antibiotics unless there is evidence of bacterial infection. Please understand that it is possible that a secondary bacterial infection will occur, even within a couple days of being seen at the doctor; if that happens, we will prescribe antibiotics at that time (and we will not charge for the follow-up visit, by the way). Although this can be inconvenient, it is the responsible practice of medicine; we must look out for your child’s long-term well-being.
- Tamiflu, except in specific situations. Tamiflu is by no means a panacea or wonder drug. It can have significant side-effects and is effective only in specific circumstances. It is considered effective only if used within the first 48 hours of flu, and shortens the duration of the flu by only a day or so, on average. Because of the side effects and high expense, its use is generally limited to the elderly and people with asthma or who are immunocompromised.
Is the flu a really nasty virus? Yes. Is this year’s severity really scary? Yes.
But we also have to view the flu within the proper context and perspective, and recognize that what does or does not help is independent of our fears. If we follow the responsible practice of medicine and adhere to evidence-based decision making, we can effectively treat the illness without creating additional problems by using medications when they’re not helpful or can even cause more harm.
As always, if you have questions or concerns about your child’s health, we’re here for you!