*Updated with 2019 information*
It’s the peak of flu season here in Huntsville and the Tennessee Valley has been hit hard. Chances are good you know several people who have had it or have it now. Some local schools are even struggling with the decision to close for a few days in order to thoroughly disinfect their classrooms, in hopes it will slow the spread of flu.
Currently, the CDC has Alabama in a “red zone” – indicating high activity of reported influenza.
Real Talk About Flu
There is plenty of misinformation about the flu out there, especially on social media. We consulted Dr. Jessica Branscome, Medical Director of the Pediatric ER at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children, and asked her your questions about how to keep the flu out of your home and away from your family.
Q.) How is flu spread?
Flu is a respiratory virus so it’s spread by respiratory droplets, so you have to have the droplets enter your mouth or your nose to get the flu. Anywhere you touch where someone else has been sick, and you touch those droplets, then bring the droplets up to your face you can get the flu. Unfortunately flu can live on surfaces up to 6-8 hours – it’s very easy to touch a surface where there are flu germs and contract the flu.
Think about places people have to go when they’re sick – the grocery store (people have to eat when they’re sick), gas stations, pharmacies, etc. I tend to wipe down my grocery cart with the wipes the stores are nice enough to provide before I put my kids in a grocery cart. Keep hand sanitizer in the car for when you leave stores. I really emphasize to my kids to keep their hands from their faces when they’re at school.
Q.) How long are you contagious is you have the flu?
Typically a day before you realize you’re sick, up to 5-7 days after you have symptoms of the flu, and certainly as long as you have fever. Our recommendations are to go 24 hours with no fever – taking no Motrin or Tylenol to supress a fever – before you go back to school or out in public.
Q.) If you think your child has flu-like symptoms, what should you do? How should you treat them?
Most kids with the flu are going to handle it really well. They’re going to have high fevers, they’re going to feel pretty poorly, and they will look really sick – body aches, lots of cough, lots of congestion. There are some strains of the flu that will cause vomiting and diarrhea, but not all strains of the flu do. Most children you can treat at home with Motrin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, lots of clear, uncaffienated fluids like Gatorade, Pedialyte, and water. A lot of kids with the flu don’t want to eat very much, and that’s OK as long as you can keep them hydrated. If you feell ike you can’t keep them hydrated, or they’re having a severe enough cough where their breathing is labored or rapid and you are concerned about it, those are the kids that need to be seen by their doctor or come see us.
Children under the age of two are at higher risk for having difficulty with the flu so keep a closer eye on them, as well as any children with chronic respiratory problems like asthma or children with diabetes. Any children with auto-immune supress diseases like leukimia all need to be seen if they have flu-like symptoms.
Q.) What is the difference between a cold or a sinus infection and the flu? How can you tell which one you’re dealing with?
It can be really hard to tell the difference between a cold and the flu. One thing with a cold is you tend to not be as sick. Most kids with colds might have a runny nose or a cough, but they’re still up and playing and mainly acting like themselves. Typically with the flu, it’s a stronger virus and you tend to be sicker – those are the kids that are laying around and looking puny. They don’t want to be up and doing the things they normally do. Other than that, you really can’t distinguish the flu without doing a medical flu test.
Q.) If you got a flu shot this year did it help? Or were you still susceptible to the flu?
Most of the kids we are seeing now that come up positive for the flu have not had a flu shot. The CDC is saying the flu shot is not quite as good as a match this year as it often is. But even if you don’t have a perfect match with the flu shot, kids that get the flu after getting the flu vaccine tend to get a milder course and recover faster. I definitely recommend the flu shot.
You cannot get the flu from a flu shot. It does take about two weeks from when you get the shot to have protection, so even if you get the flu shot today you still won’t be protected for two weeks.
Q.) Is it too late to get the flu shot?
It is absolutely not too late. We expect flu season to peak by early February but we could see cases all the way into March. We expect this flu season to get worse before it gets better.
Q.) Can pregnant women and babies get the flu vaccine?
You have to be six months old to get a flu vaccine. Babies 6 months – 1 year range are at higher risk of getting secondary pneumonia and other complications from the flu. The first year you get a flu shot you do have to get two – the initial shot and a booster a month later.
Dr. Branscome recommends parents and caregivers of children read these good resources from the CDC about how to stay healthy during flu season and how to best care for sick family members.
Watch Dr. Branscome’s Entire “Flu Chat”
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Dr. Jessica Branscome is the Medical Director of the Pediatric ER at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children. She is board certified in Pediatrics and has worked in pediatric emergency medicine for eleven years.