The question: My son has caught the flu at school. He's not in great shape, there's been vomiting and he has a high fever. What's the best way to get him better?
The answer: This is the perfect time of year to be talking about influenza treatment and prevention. Every winter we experience an epidemic of influenza, and this year is shaping up to be the worst flu season since the H1N1 scare of 2009. You can quickly find out about rates of influenza in your particular region by going to websites like the Public Health Agency of Canada's FluWatch or even Google Flu Trends.
Influenza is a severe, highly contagious viral infection that targets the nose, throat and lungs. Classic symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, headache and muscle aches. Although vomiting can be associated with the flu, it is rarely the primary symptom. As such, your son may need to be assessed for other conditions, including pneumonia.
Children with the flu can usually be treated at home with fluids, rest and doses of acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen as needed. The importance of keeping your child home from school or daycare cannot be overemphasized, as this infection is highly contagious. Frequent hand washing is critical in preventing the spread of this illness to others. Don't worry if your child doesn't have much of an appetite for solid foods for the first several days. Keeping him well-hydrated with fluids is more important than eating at this stage.
Children can usually return to school once they have been fever-free for at least 24 hours, are drinking well and have an energy level that will allow them to participate in school activities.
There are some groups that require special consideration: Infants who are less than 2; children with underlying chronic medical conditions (like asthma and diabetes); pregnant women; and children of Aboriginal descent. While the flu can be severe or deadly for even the healthiest of individuals, it can be particularly devastating for these groups.
I advise parents of children who fall into one of these categories to seek medical assessment at the first sign of possible flu symptoms. The reason for this is that these high-risk children may be candidates for an antiviral medication that can decrease the severity of their illness, and prevent hospitalization and complications like pneumonia. The medication oseltamivir, better known as Tamiflu, can be prescribed to infants, children and adults, but must be given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be most effective.
Of course, the best strategy of all is to avoid getting the flu in the first place. Frequent hand washing, eating well, regular exercise and a good night's sleep will go a long way toward keeping your family healthy during the winter months.
It's also not too late to be immunized against the flu. All children six months and older should be vaccinated annually. Children older than 2 who are otherwise healthy can get their vaccine in the form of a nasal spray rather than an injection. The nasal spray, known as FluMist, not only avoids an unpleasant injection, but it also provides superior protection against the flu.
Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.
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