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Health Tips for Parents

2005 Issues

Should my child get a flu shot?

With the holiday season fast approaching, another annual ritual looms—flu season. Although its timing varies from year to year, flu season can start in November and last all the way through February. In most cases, remedies to alleviate flu symptoms can help a child feel more comfortable. For some children, preventative measures—such as a flu shot or a nasal spray vaccine—may be appropriate to help avoid the flu. Antiviral drugs can also prevent or at least lessen the length or severity of a child’s symptoms, notes Dennis Woo, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

Detecting the flu
Influenza, or the “flu,” is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Symptoms usually begin abruptly and may include a fever that spikes suddenly, severe headache, muscle aches and chills. Other symptoms may include runny nose, cough and sore throat. Children may also have additional gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. The flu spreads person to person via direct contact, such as through a sneeze or handshake. Remind your children to wash their hands frequently to try to control spreading or catching germs.

Only a doctor can distinguish the flu from other viral or bacterial infections through a test on nasal secretions given two to three days after symptoms begin. Since flu symptoms mimic other non-specific viruses, many children go undiagnosed. According to Dr. Woo, this is not a problem in most children since doctors will recommend that parents treat the symptoms similarly. The only exception is very sick children who may benefit from an actual diagnosis of the flu so that they can be monitored closely.

The flu is not directly related to the avian (bird) flu, which has caused a stir in the media in the past few months. According to Dr. Woo, the avian flu, which has not been reported in the U.S., is the direct result of contact between a human and an infected animal. The virus has not developed the ability to pass easily from one person to another.

Treating the flu
If your child has symptoms of the flu, make sure he or she gets plenty of rest, drinks lots of liquids, and, when appropriate, takes pain-relieving medicines that do not contain aspirin. Never give aspirin to a child or teenager who has flu-like symptoms—particularly fever—without first speaking to your doctor, since this combination can cause a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.

Antiviral medications can prevent or shorten the course of the flu. Specific drugs target either influenza A or influenza B viruses. Studies show that treatment with these drugs can shorten the times a person feels ill by approximately one day, if treatment begins during the first two days of illness.

Dr. Woo stresses that a pediatrician should always see children with chronic conditions when flu symptoms appear.

Flu vaccines
The best way to prevent the flu is with a flu vaccine. When administered, flu vaccines can help reduce new cases of the flu by 80 percent. People who do contract the flu after receiving the flu vaccine are likely to experience milder symptoms. Because influenza viruses change from year to year, influenza vaccines must be updated annually to include the viruses that will most likely circulate in the upcoming season.

The CDC has outlined guidelines to prioritize those Americans who fall into high-risk groups and should receive first priority for flu shots. Healthy children between the ages of 6 and 23 months fall into the high-risk category. Healthy children over age 5 years old are eligible to receive the Food and Drug Administration-approved flu nasal spray. Both vaccines protect against the same strains of the flu.

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