Flu Season

Flu Season

Flu season is upon us – and Chicagoland is being hit hard. Read below about the signs and symptoms of influenza, along with the matter of the flu vaccine and it’s efficacy.

To help explain this important concept – and why it has become so critical this year – parents must understand the production of the flu vaccine. The strains of flu virus that are selected for inclusion in the vaccine are updated each year. Influenza centers in over 100 countries around the world conduct year round monitoring to study disease trends, including which strains are prevalent in certain geographic areas and how they are spreading. In the United States, an advisory committee of the Food and Drud Administration (FDA) uses the available data to decide which strains of influenza to include in the upcoming year’s vaccine. It takes at least six months to produce large quantities of flu vaccine.

One factor that can reduce the effectiveness of the flu vaccine is how closely related – or “matched” – the virus strains included in the vaccine are to those actually circulating among the population once flu season hits. This year there is a strain of H3N2 virus that is slightly mutated – making it different than the strain used for this year’s flu vaccine. This genetic “drift” was noted in March – which was too late to change the formulation of the vaccine. It is also important to note that it was not until September that the new strain became common.

Does my child have the flu?
A common question that parents ask their pediatrician is if their sick child has the flu or if it is just the common cold. Unless the doctor decides that a flu test is appropriate – there is no way to know for sure. The symptoms of influenza and those seen in children with a regular “cold virus” can be very similar and often very from child to child.

Some of the differences that might help a pediatrician or parent suspect the flu relate to the severity of the symptoms. Generally, kids with the flu will feel worse and seem to be “sicker” looking than children with the common cold. The onset of symptoms is typically more sudden in children with influenza, while kids with colds tend to develop symptoms more slowly. The level of fever can be another indicator – the flu usually presents itself with a high fever compared to colds that result in little or no fever. Headaches and muscle aches are symptoms more typical of influenza infection. Sore throats and significant decreases in appetite and energy levels are also reported more in kids with the flu, compared to those with the common cold.

There are only two established ways to decrease the likelihood of getting the flu. The first is having all children and adults over the age of 6 months visit their primary care physician to get the appropriate flu vaccine. Even with the “mismatch” situation that developed this year, it is still extremely important for people to be vaccinated. The mutated stain discussed above accounts for only 45-50% of the circulating flu in the Chicago area – leaving at least 50% of the flu virus that the vaccine provides protection. Some flu experts feel that the current vaccine may still provide some degree of defense even against the mismatched strain. The other tried and true strategy to decrease spread of the flu is ensuring that family members wash their hands or use sanitizer gels frequently.

Treating the Flu
The mainstay of managing the flu is what pediatricians call “supportive care.” Encourage lots of fluids – plain water is preferable. Make sure the sick child or adult gets lots of rest and quiet time. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen will help bring down the fever and relieve body aches. Dress in layers that can be removed if chills develop. Look for ways to cheer up the sick person – having friends call to say hi, or getting them a fun book to read can really boost their spirits.

For a specific group of high risk patients, if they are identified within the first two days of illness – their physician may chose to prescribe an antiviral medication, which may shorten the course of symptoms by a day or two.

It is important for families to remember that though most people who catch the flu will recover in 5-7 days, serious and sometimes deadly complications can develop. Other infections – such as pneumonia or strep throat can look like the flu, so be sure to stay in contact with your physician and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or persist.