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The death of a Leesburg teen from the flu this February has rocked our community and created extra anxiety for parents this winter. For most children, the flu is a serious but very manageable diagnosis best treated with fluids and rest. But when complications hit close to home, it’s reasonable to experience fear and concern.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 5 (especially children younger than 2) and children with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk of hospitalization and complications from flu. According to the Center for Disease Control, 105 pediatric flu deaths have occurred from the start of the current flu season through mid-February. Overall, hospitalizations for children and young adults are higher than in recent years, but the death rate remains low, the CDC reports. As parents and healthcare providers, we don’t want to overreact to a flu diagnosis, but we want to be vigilant and on the lookout for warning signs of complications.
How Does the Flu Lead to Death?
To keep things in perspective, let’s remember that most people who get the flu recover in a few days. However, severe complications and death can occur from the flu virus itself or secondary infections. These complications often happen in vulnerable populations like seniors, young children and people with underlying conditions but can also strike healthy people of all ages.
Bacterial pneumonia is one of the most common and deadly complications related to the flu. The flu weakens the lungs and makes it easier for the pneumonia virus to attack. Pneumonia becomes fatal when the lungs fill with fluid, preventing oxygen from reaching the bloodstream.
Sepsis is another potentially deadly secondary reaction to the flu virus. According to the Sepsis Alliance, sepsis results when your immune system essentially turns on itself, triggering an “overactive and toxic response to an infection.” In a nutshell, the immune system is trying to fight the virus but instead creates an inflammatory response, which can cause organ failure and sometimes death.
My Child Is Getting Worse: When Should I Take Him Back to the Doctor?
If your child has flu symptoms (including fever, chills, cough and muscle aches), take him to see your pediatrician. Getting that initial diagnosis can help with recovery since antiviral medications like Tamiflu are proving useful when prescribed early in the game. Rest and fluids are still the most effective strategies for treating the flu. However, if your child’s symptoms don’t improve or get worse, you may need to head back to the doctor’s office or go to the emergency room. Here are some of the warning signs of dangerous flu complications in children according to the CDC:
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish lips or face
- Chest pain
- Severe muscle pain/refusing to walk
- Dehydration (no urine for 8 hours, dry mouth, no tears when crying)
- Fever above 104 degrees
- A fever that returns after your child seems to be getting better
- Not alert or interacting when awake
What Can I Do to Help My Child Get Through the Flu?
Since the flu is a virus, we don’t prescribe antibiotics unless there’s a secondary infection. Rest, fluids and awareness are the most critical factors in helping your child recover from the flu. Staying hydrated is one of the keys to staying healthy, so keep those fluids coming. You can ask your pediatrician about antiviral medications like Tamiflu, which can help shorten or diminish symptoms if prescribed in time. However, they work best when started within two days of getting sick. You can also give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help relieve symptoms like body aches and fever. Be sure your child gets the flu vaccine every year. As we’ve seen this year, even if your child gets the flu, it’s often milder in patients who get vaccinated.
Finally, if your child gets a flu diagnosis, don’t panic. Out of millions of flu cases each year, the death rate is actually quite low. Our immune systems are remarkable and are generally able to handle the flu. Make sure your child is drinking and urinating regularly, watch for warning signs of complications, and stay in contact with your pediatrician if you have concerns. Chances are, your kiddo will be up and healthy again in no time.