Have the flu?
Do your kids have the flu?
They likely have the flu if they:
- have typical flu symptoms
- were exposed to someone with the flu in the previous one to four days (the flu incubation period)
- are sick during flu season, especially in an area of high flu activity
- didn't have a flu vaccine (although some kids will get the flu even after getting a flu vaccine)
Understanding what typical flu symptoms are in children can help you figure out if your child is sick with the flu.
Flu symptoms usually include a sudden onset of:
- high fever, although not everyone with the flu has a fever
- muscle aches and pains
- weakness and tiredness
- dry cough
- sore throat
- stuffy or runny nose
- nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (least common flu symptoms)
These flu symptoms can last for a few days to a few weeks.
Keep in mind that many other viral illness can cause cold or 'flu-like symptoms,' although flu symptoms are usually more intense than regular cold symptoms. However, sometimes the only way that you can tell the difference between a cold and the flu is by doing a flu test. This can be important because flu medicines, like Tamiflu, can help to decrease the severity of flu symptoms and help your high risk child get better sooner.
Rapid flu tests are popular with pediatricians and parents. With this flu test, a simple nasopharyngeal cotton swab in your child's nose can answer the 'does my child have the flu?' question in just 10 or 15 minutes.
Unfortunately, although they are commonly used, these flu tests have some downsides, including a high rate of false negatives (a negative flu test when your child really has the flu) during the peak of flu season and some false positives (a positive flu test when your child really doesn't have the flu) when flu activity is low.
According to the CDC, a flu test is not needed for all patients with suspected flu. Instead, once it is known that flu is in the area, the diagnosis can usually be made clinically, based on the child's symptoms. A flu test may be helpful if a child is hospitalized with severe flu symptoms, if he has other high risk medical problems, or if the flu test results might influence infection control practices of other children.
In addition to the rapid flu test, other flu tests can include flu virus culture, direct fluorescent antibody tests, and PCR molecular tests. Although usually more accurate, it can take much longer to get results using one of these other flu tests (hours to days).
Tamiflu is available in capsule and suspension form, while Relenza is a dry powder inhaler.
When begun within 48 hours of the start of flu symptoms, these prescription flu medicines can help prevent serious flu complications, shorten how long you are sick with the flu by one or two days, and reduce the length of stay for hospitalized patients.
Most people don't need these flu treatments, though. The CDC only recommends routine use of antiviral flu medications for people who are at risk for serious complications from the flu, including:
- children younger than five years old, especially those under age two years
- adults 65 years and older
- pregnant women
- people with many chronic medical problems (asthma, heart disease, etc.) or a weak immune system (diabetes, HIV, etc.)
- children and teens receiving long-term aspirin therapy
People with severe flu symptoms, such as those requiring hospitalization, should also likely take a flu medication.
Other flu facts that may be helpful once you know that your child has the flu include that:
- The flu is very contagious. In general, people with the flu are contagious and can make others sick beginning one day before they even start having flu symptoms themselves and for up to five to seven days after getting sick. Kids can usually go back to school or daycare once they are free of fever for twenty-four hours, though.
- Relenza can be used by children who are at least seven years old and don't have asthma or heart problems.
- Although Tamfilu was recommended for infants under 12 months of age during the 2009 H1N1 pandemia, Tamiflu is once again just FDA-approved for use in children 12 months of age and older.
- Tamiflu and Relenza can help prevent flu infections in high-risk kids who didn't get a flu shot when they are exposed to someone with the flu.
- The influenza virus can cause croup, bronchiolitis, ear infections, and pneumonia.
- Although you should never give kids aspirin, it is especially important to avoid aspirin when your kids have the flu, since that is one of conditions that, with aspirin, is linked to Reye syndrome.
- Kids who recently had the Flumist nasal spray flu vaccine may test positive on a flu test for at least seven days.
- The possibility of increased resistance with overuse, high price of flu medicines, poor taste of liquid Tamiflu, and concerns about Tamiflu side effects, are good reasons to only use antiviral flu medicines when they are really needed.
Most importantly, if your kids have the flu and didn't get a flu vaccine this year, be sure to get them vaccinated next year and decrease their chances that they get sick with the flu again.
CDC. Guidance for Clinicians on the Use of Rapid Influenza Diagnostic Tests for the 2010-2011 Influenza Season. Accessed February 2011.
CDC. What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs. Accessed February 2011.