Influenza, also known as ‘flu’ commonly, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by influenza virus. The viral infection affects the air passages present in the lungs. The outbreak of influenza takes place every year between November and April. The attack of influenza in children is mainly seen in the winter months. Generally the influenza virus remains active for less than a week. However, in some children the problem might become quite serious and hospitalization might be needed as well. Flu if not treated at the right time and in the right manner can lead to pneumonia as well.
Causes of Influenza in Children
Flu viruses are the main cause of influenza. There are three kinds of viruses which are responsible for influenza in children. They are as follows:
1. Influenza type A & B
These are the two common kinds of viruses which lead to widespread illnesses almost every year during the winter time. These viruses are extremely contagious and can spread very rapidly from one person to another. The problem with these virus varieties is that these mutate very commonly. As a result, taking protection against one virus might not protect you from influenza. New kinds of viruses are born every year and people are exposed to the same. Taking vaccines might offer partial protection but not complete protection against the influenza virus type A & B.
2. Influenza type C
This kind of influenza virus causes very slight respiratory ailment. Infact there might be no pronounced symptoms for this kind of influenza at all. When compared to influenza virus type A and B, this virus has no impact at all.
Coughing and sneezing are the most common ways in which influenza virus is transmitted from one child to the other. Sometimes, these viruses also tend to live on various surfaces for a short period of time. Some of the areas and surfaces, which need mention in this regard are toys, books, pens, pencils, keyboards, door knobs, phones and so on. The virus might also be transferred by sharing drinking water from the same bottle or glass as well as through common utensils which are used for serving and eating food. Children can also be infected with a flu virus via touching things which have been already touched by a person suffering from influenza. The infection spreads when the child puts the same infected hand to his eyes, mouth or nose.
Symptoms for influenza in kids start appearing after 24 hours of the infection. The most contagious time is before these 24 hours and even while the symptoms are fully present. The risk of transmitting the virus stops almost after 7 days of the infection. Children are more prone to these infections as they tend to touch their mouths, eyes and nose quite often.
Symptoms of influenza in children
Most of us tend to confuse the signs and symptoms of influenza to that of common cold because they are very similar to one another. Mentioned below are some of the most common signs and symptoms of influenza in children:
- Body ache, which can range from being medium to severe
- Sore throat
- Stuffy or running nose
- Fever, which might rise to almost 103◦F to 105◦F
- Tremendous headache
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Cough which refuses to get cured and gets worse
- Constant sneezing
- Nausea and vomiting in some kids
- Chills and shakes
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach pain and stomach upset might happen
Generally the symptoms subside slowly with intake of medicines. However, in many cases, complications might develop from influenza as well. In many young children, influenza has seen to progress into other serious ailments like pneumonia (lung infection), croup (a condition in which the vocal cords and the throat are infected severely leading to barking cough, hoarseness of voice, noisy breathing and so on) and bronchiolitis (infection in the tiny airways, which reaches the lungs leading to difficulty in breathing and wheezing). The immune system of the child is compromised and weakened due to influenza infection. This can lead to bacterial infections in the body like in sinuses (sinusitis), in the ear (otitis) and of lungs (pneumonia). In case influenza gets really serious and fever surges beyond limits, the heart and the brain can be affected by the same.
Diagnosing influenza in children
When the child has flu like symptoms during the flu season, the doctor might physically check the child and understand the problem. There are some common symptoms of influenza like high fever, muscle and throat soreness, breathing problems in the upper respiratory tract, fatigue, listlessness etc. To be surer of the diagnosis, the doctor might ask to get some tests and investigations done. They are as follows:
- Chest X-ray of the child. This is mainly done to see the extent of the infection and to rule out the chances of pneumonia.
- Swabs of mucus can be taken from the throat or the nose and sent for analysis in the laboratory. Along with regular analysis, culture reports might be asked as well.
- Blood tests to rule out any other kind of ailment which has similar symptoms.
Treatment of influenza in children
Most parents are surprised when the doctor says that there is no cure for influenza. The influenza virus has a life span of maximum 7 days and will go away after that automatically. No anti-viral medication will help in getting cured quickly from influenza. For high fever, paracetamol tablets can be given. This will not only reduce the fever, but also provide comfort and relaxation from the pains and aches in the body. Doctors recommend not giving antibiotics for treating influenza as it will be of no use. Rather it makes the child weak and might cause side effects like lack of appetite, stomach upset or even constipation in many. Instead try ways of making the child more comfortable.
- Ask the kid to take rest as much as possible.
- In case the child has blocked nose and finds difficulty in breathing, try giving saline nasal spray or drops or some natural inhalant for easing the discomfort.
- For the sore throat and dry mouth, warm soups are a great idea. These soups not only taste great, but they are nutritious at the same time.
- For the high fever and the viral infection, the body tends to get dehydrated. Encourage the kid to drink lots of water or fruit juice to keep the system hydrated in the best manner.
- Refrain from giving the child antibiotics, cough medications or decongestants as these will be practically of no use at all.
Prevention of influenza in kids
The spread of influenza in kids can be minimized and prevented to a great extent with proper precautions and preventive measures. Some of the most common ways of prevention of influenza in kids include:
- Washing hands properly–This is the most common and best way of combating the influenza virus in kids.
- Always wash hands thoroughly after being in contact with a person who is suffering from some respiratory problem
- Always wash hands properly after sneezing, coughing or wiping the nose
- Wash your and your child’s hand after wiping the kid’s nose or face
- In case soap and water are not available for washing hands, try using alcohol-based hand rinses or pre-moistened hand wipes. Hand sanitizers are also quite useful in this regard. However, keep these rinses away from the reach of the child so that they don’t swallow the liquid.
- Immunization – Immunization is a way in which influenza can be prevented. Children who are more than 6 months old must get a flu shot every year. The effect of the vaccine remains for a year or so. This is because every year, new strains of viruses cause influenza and the vaccine shots are prepared likewise. Taking this vaccine is very important for children who are at high risks of complications caused from influenza. There are children with chronic conditions and their parents must ensure that the child gets the immunization done at the right time.
- Covering nose and mouth while coughing and sneezing–There are certain things which need to be taught at home, not only for preventing influenza, but as part of good manners. Teach the child to cover the nose and mouth with a handkerchief or tissue while coughing or sneezing. Never ever should the child cough or sneeze openly.
- Avoid sharing items and toys–Small children have a tendency of putting things into their mouth. If the toys have been touched by someone who is infected with influenza, it is recommended to keep the toys away till they are cleaned thoroughly. This is also applicable for other items like towels, cups, glasses, utensils and so on.
There is nothing to be upset or to panic if your child has influenza. Most of the cases can be handled easily at home with general paracetamol tablets. However, if you feel that things are going out of control, it is always recommended to visit a doctor or take the child to a hospital for immediate treatment.