Late fall and early winter is prime “flu season” and with this season, young children and adults often become ill with the flu. Flu, short for influenza, is an acute viral infection. This time of year often is called flu season because it usually is when flu cases begin to be widespread. In a typical flu season, up to 25 percent of the population may get the flu.
Elderly people, very young children, and patients with chronic cardiopulmonary conditions are at highest risk for developing flu. Children are two to three times more likely than adults to get sick with the flu, and children frequently spread the virus to others. Although most people recover from the illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 100,000 people are hospitalized and about 36,000 people die of the flu and its complications every year in the U.S.
Flu outbreaks usually begin suddenly, and the disease spreads quickly through communities. Because childcare programs and schools are excellent places for flu viruses to attack and spread, families with children tend to have more infections than other families, with an average of one-third of the family members infected each year. Knowing the symptoms of the flu, how to treat it, and how to prevent it may help decrease the effects and the spread of this illness in your childcare program.
What is the Flu?
Flu is an acute viral infection of the airway tract in the nose and throat that can sometimes spread into the lungs. Many people confuse influenza with the common cold because both are respiratory infections caused by viruses. However, the flu differs from the common cold in several ways. For example, people with colds rarely get fever, nausea, or headache, or suffer from the extreme exhaustion that comes with the flu.
The first flu virus was identified in the 1930s. Since then, scientists have classified flu viruses into types A, B, and C. Type A is the most common and usually causes the most serious epidemics. Type B outbreaks also can cause epidemics, but the disease it produces generally is milder than that caused by type A. On the other hand, type C viruses never have been connected with a large epidemic.
Getting the Flu
Influenza is highly contagious and is spread in the air after an infected person has sneezed or coughed, or by direct contact with an infected person’s secretions through kissing, sharing of food, hand contact, or even touching a door knob, grocery cart handle, or telephone that someone with the flu has touched.
Flu viruses can be transmitted easily if an infected child sneezes or coughs on a toy or table surface. Other children and staff are exposed to the illness by touching the infected items. To help prevent disease spread it is particularly important to clean toys and surfaces on a daily–or even more frequent basis–with a disinfectant such as a bleach solution.
Symptoms of the flu can be felt throughout the body. Typically, the fever begins to decline on the second or third day of the illness. Victims commonly exhibit the following symptoms:
- Fever of up to 104 degrees
- Loss of appetite
- Aching of the head, back, arms, and legs
- Sore throat and a dry cough
- Burning eyes
Treating the Flu
While most flu cases simply make the child (or adult) uncomfortable for a few days, it can lead to serious complications, especially for infants. It is best if parents call their child’s doctor and describe the symptoms; the doctor or nurse will determine if the child should be seen by the doctor and if medication is needed.
Most flu infections may be treated by resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, such as water or juice, and taking over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, for example). Do not give aspirin to children and adolescents as this has been associated with Reye’s Syndrome, a life-threatening illness that typically follows a viral infection such as flu, cold, or chicken pox. Antibiotics are ineffective in treating the flu because they do not work against viruses. Antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can make them less effective against other bacterial.
Avoiding the Flu
While appropriate health habits are important throughout the year, they are particularly important during the flu season. These steps can help reduce the transmission of flu as well as other viruses.
- Regular, thorough hand washing
- Covering and nose mouth when coughing or sneezing
- No sharing of tissues
- Sound nutrition
- Plenty of rest and sleep
- Teach children to avoid touching their eyes and face with their hands and to use a clean tissue instead
The CDC prepares a flu vaccine each year to protect against the specific flu virus expected during the season. Vaccine is usually administered as an injection (shot), but a new flu mist vaccine in the form of a simple nasal spray now is available for individuals between the ages of five and 50.
Influenza and its complications are the sixth leading cause of death among children younger than four years old. Some children are at high risk of having complications from the flu, making them very sick or even causing death. The following children, in particular, need to be immunized each year to prevent the flu:
- Infants six–23 months of age.
- Children 24 months-18 years of age who have chronic health problems like asthma or other problems of the lungs, immune suppression, chronic kidney disease, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or sickle cell anemia.
Babies younger than six months old also can get very sick from the flu, but they are too young to get the flu vaccine. The best way to protect them is to make sure their caregivers, family members, and other children with whom they come in contact with who are older than six months of age are vaccinated. Flu shots are available at doctor’s offices, health departments, and many community special event sites, such as festivals, churches, and even grocery stores.