As you can see in the map above, influenza activity through the first week of December was “slightly elevated” nationally and has been “minimal” in Pennsylvania so far this flu season. Yesterday, in their weekly Respiratory Pathogen Testing communication email to local providers, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh reported zero positive tests for influenza A or B viruses. Nationwide, influenza A (H1N1) has been the strain most prevalent so early this season. This is not an unusual pattern of emergence for influenza viruses. Most flu season epidemics begin in early January, peak in February and March before declining and disappearing by late spring. Influenza A strains typically mark the beginning of flu season and influenza B strains peak later. The good news is if you have received your annual flu vaccine by now, your immune system is primed to combat the four strains included in this year’s influenza vaccine. More good news: if you haven’t yet received your flu vaccine, there is still time (and plenty of supply) to get one this week — before the holidays — prior to the start of flu season locally, when all the bad news begins. Dr. Jenny Seawell (The Pediatric Ninja) speaks for every pediatrician I know when she encourages her own patients and their families to be protected this and every influenza season:
We hear about viruses all the time. So what’s the big deal about the flu? Unfortunately, all cases of the flu aren’t mild. Some kids (and adults) get very sick very fast. And some kids die. 80,000 Americans died from seasonal flu last flu season. Does this scare you? As a pediatrician, it scares me. I work every day to try to protect other people’s kids. I don’t like giving bad news. When my patients or their parents die, I mourn and always remember them. As a mom, it scares me. Flu is just as likely to kill a pediatrician’s kid as anyone else’s.
Some people are higher risk for complications from the flu. Chronic illness? Asthma? Pregnant? Babies? Elderly? All at high risk. But the flu will also kill totally healthy normal people too. It does not discriminate.
If you get sick this winter, how will you know it’s influenza? As every person who has ever had the flu will tell you, you’ll know! We’ve described the symptoms before:
Influenza is a dreadful infection. People think of “the flu” as vomiting and diarrhea. That is not influenza. Think of influenza as the worst possible cold you can imagine: Lots of nasal congestion and frequent coughing, terrible sore throat, severe headache, high fever. People who vomit do so because they feel so bad to begin with. And it’s not just one or some of these symptoms. It’s usually ALL of these symptoms, simultaneously! The symptoms are severe and persistent — often lasting a full week before things begin to improve.
For children, this typically means two weeks of missing school (one week of being really sick, and another week to recover). And that is if there are no complications. Complications occur commonly and include ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia, and dehydration. That means a visit to the pediatrician or even the emergency room, often chest X-rays, and usually an antibiotic (or two).
Pediatricians see a lot of influenza every winter, and we see a lot of bad flu. Like ICU bad. Children die in the United States from influenza every year.
What worries Dr. Seawell and all pediatricians about influenza should worry parents, too:
Although most cases of the flu are uncomplicated, we are always concerned with development of severe symptoms or secondary infections. Common complications from the flu include pneumonia, otitis media (ear infections), and sinus infections. Serious complications such as influenza associated myocarditis are rare, but can and do happen. Most secondary infections are easy to treat, however, serious invasive infections can occur resulting in hospitalization and in some cases, even death. Children younger than 5 years old are at increased risk for complications from the flu. There is also an increased risk in children with chronic disease (asthma, diabetes, congenital heart disease, hemoglobinopathy, cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease, and chronic renal disease).
If things seem to be taking a turn for the worse, go back in to see your doctor. Any difficulty breathing should be taken seriously. If your symptoms seem to be improving and then start worsening again, you may have developed a secondary infection.
Flu vaccine isn’t perfect; it doesn’t prevent influenza in every person who receives one. (Although avoiding a flu vaccine won’t prevent the flu either. Also, remember that the flu shot won’t give you the flu.) Taking other precautions — washing hands with soap and water with appropriate frequency, keeping home surfaces (countertops, faucets, doorknobs, light switches, etc.) sanitized, staying away from sick people, and staying well-hydrated, properly nourished, and well-rested — can also help prevent coming down with the flu.
Be careful out there! If your child still hasn’t received a flu vaccine, there is still time to get one and realize its full benefit. Call our offices today to make sure they get their dose now. The same goes for parents — don’t delay any longer!
Read previous years’ Influenza Updates on The PediaBlog here.