Family Health: Flu symptoms can be very dangerous for children

As a parent, it can be hard to determine when your child’s illness needs professional medical attention or if he or she can be treated at home. You do not want to rush into an emergency department if it is not an emergency, but at the same time you do not want to hesitate to get professional medical attention if your child really needs immediate evaluation. Different conditions require different levels of care. Influenza is one condition that can present such a dilemma.

Influenza can be serious for otherwise healthy people, but can be especially dangerous for children younger than 5. In addition, older children with certain long-term health conditions such as asthma, neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions, chronic lung disease, heart disease, blood disorders, endocrine disorders, kidney, liver, metabolic disorders and weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable.

For 2012-13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an earlier start of the influenza season and is reporting a continued increase in flu activity. It is still too early to tell how severe this flu season will be. H3N2 is proving to be the predominant strain, and in past years this strain has resulted in severe illness in young children and the elderly.

Emergency rooms across the nation are reporting a sharp increase in patients and are having a difficult time keeping up with the surge of patients. The past few weeks have shown an increase in hospitalizations of children 4 and younger. Of the hospitalized cases, 39.8 percent had no known underlying condition indicated in their medical chart at the time of hospitalization. There have even been 18 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated pediatric deaths nationwide so far.

Even children who have always been healthy can get very sick from the flu. A few symptoms of the flu include fever, headache, general aches and pains, weakness, chest discomfort and cough. If you feel that your child has the flu, and he or she suddenly develops difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, bluish or gray skin color, becomes unusually sleepy or difficult to rouse, or even if you are not sure or are in doubt, call your doctor. Another option is to call Community Medical Center’s free 24/7 Nurse on Call Center at (406) 327-4770.

The best advice for protection against the flu is to get the influenza vaccine. It is recommended for everyone 6 months and older. If your child is younger than 6 months old, the best protection is vaccination of parents, caregivers and siblings. Other ways to prevent the spread of germs include covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue; throwing tissues and other disposable items in the trash; staying away from others who are sick; washing your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub; avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth; and wiping down surfaces often with a household disinfectant to keep your environment clean.

If you or your child develops the flu, stay home and rest to avoid spreading the flu to others. Antiviral medicines are available by prescription and work best if started early in the course of the illness.

Pam Goldberg is a registered nurse and the infection control coordinator at Community Medical Center.