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Treating and preventing the spread of influenza

By Joe Kurland, MPH vaccine specialist and infection preventionist at Children’s Minnesota

Minnesota is in the midst of a significant increase of flu cases across the state. Over one thousand people have been hospitalized because of flu since September, with approximately 500 admitted with flu each week for the past several weeks. Influenza is considered widespread across Minnesota while children and adults continue to fall ill.

Influenza, or “the flu,” is a highly contagious viral infection that can cause serious illness in some. It can affect people of all ages; however, children and the elderly are at the highest risk for contracting the illness. People with “high risk” conditions are more likely to require hospitalization and possibly die.  Each year, the flu is estimated to kill as many as 56,000 people across the US during the season extending from October to May.

There are many ways to help prevent catching and spreading the flu:

Get the flu shot

Although the vaccine is not 100% effective at preventing symptoms of the flu, it can limit the severity and duration of the infection and may reduce the chances your child will need to be hospitalized because of the virus. Every year, Children’s Minnesota admits many children to the hospital due to flu-related illnesses. Regardless of their prior health, 90% of kids that require intensive care have one thing in common: they didn’t get their flu vaccine.

If your child hasn’t received their flu shot, there is still time. It is still recommended, and a good idea, to get the vaccine even if your child has already felt sick with flu symptoms. The flu vaccine protects against either 3 or 4 strains of flu (depending upon which vaccine your clinic orders). Falling ill with one strain of flu will not prevent your child from getting sick again with the others. The flu shot can help protect your child from the other strains even if you already suffered one this season.

Flu shots are offered at all of our 12 primary care clinics throughout the Twin Cities and are recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older. Find a location near you and schedule an appointment. You can also learn more about our commitment to reducing needle pain through Children’s Comfort Promise.

Know your symptoms

Influenza typically has similar symptoms to the common cold; however, influenza symptoms tend to be more severe and may include the following:

  • Fever of 100 degrees or higher
  • Chills
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cough
  • Muscle or body aches

Cover your cough

Influenza is typically spread by respiratory droplets kicked into the air by a sneeze or cough. Avoid spreading this and other germs by covering your child’s cough using a facial tissue, or having them cough into the crook of their arm. If you go into your doctor’s office, they may require a mask to protect others.

Wash your hands

The influenza virus can live on surfaces such as countertops, chairs, and doorknobs for as long as 72 hours. Children risk infecting themselves with the virus by touching their eyes, nose or mouth after touching a contaminated surface.

To minimize the risk of indirect exposure to the infection, have your child wash their hands or use hand sanitizer several times a day. It is also recommended to frequently wipe down “high touch surfaces” with sanitizing wipes to lower the risk of the virus being there to infect others.

Sick? Stay Home.

If your child doesn’t feel well, keep them home from daycare, school, or other activities and have them rest early in their illness; at least until they are back to their normal selves. Attending school while sick and coughing risks spreading the virus to others, as each cough can release thousands of infectious particles into the air.

Be careful not to confuse influenza with the “stomach flu” (viral gastroenteritis). Influenza may cause vomiting and diarrhea (this is more common in children), but whereas the stomach flu keeps you down for a day or two, influenza illness can last much longer and cause serious breathing complications.  In either case, it’s important to avoid dehydration by encouraging your child to drink plenty of fluids.

There are many respiratory viruses circulating, and not all are influenza. When the flu hits, it hits hard and fast.  Within a few hours, those infected feel muscle aches, fatigued, and may suffer cough and chills. Children may or may not develop a fever, and they may or may not suffer vomiting and diarrhea.   Other viral illnesses like rhinovirus (common cold), human metapneumovirus, and parainfluenza all make their rounds this time of year causing fever, runny noses, coughs and general misery.  However, influenza is the most serious of the seasonal illnesses and poses the greatest risk to health.

Contact your doctor if…

The important thing to remember is that flu symptoms can vary from child to child. Not every illness is the flu, but if your child is feeling sick with flu-like symptoms that aren’t getting better over time, contact your primary care provider.

Immediately contact your pediatrician or take your child to the nearest emergency room if they experience any of the following:

  • Flu symptoms that progressively get worse
  • Difficulty eating or drinking, or if your child isn’t urinating once every eight hours as dehydration may be a concern
  • Shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing as respiratory complications can develop quickly and be life-threatening

More resources:

A photo of Joe Kurland, MPH
Joe Kurland, MPH
Rachel Patterson