I’m a pediatrician so, whenever possible, I’m all about fun. My wife might tell you that I’m so much about fun that I border on the immature. She is probably not wrong. If there is one thing I do know, though, it is that influenza is not fun.
Influenza is an infectious disease caused by a virus. (Don’t you hate it when you take your kids to the doctor and are told, “Well, looks like it’s just a virus”?) Fortunately, this virus is preventable, meaning you can take steps to decrease the risk of you and your family getting the virus in the first place.
Trust me, this is one virus you want to prevent as much as possible because flu symptoms are not fun.
Usually, influenza will start with a sudden “sick” feeling and high fevers. But it doesn’t stop there. Headaches, cough, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue and body aches all hit shortly thereafter.
The fevers and “sick” feeling (in medicine, we call this malaise) last for about a week. The other symptoms can linger for a week or longer. In general, plan on two weeks of not-fun miserableness. In addition to experiencing this couple of weeks of misery, remember there also can be complications with any illness.
Complications are like the extra credit for miserable — extra symptoms or illness that can come on top of the usual flu symptoms. Complications from influenza can include ear infections, pneumonia, severe asthma exacerbation, respiratory failure, severe secondary bacterial pneumonia and severe croup.
Other rare neurologic complications like aseptic meningitis and febrile seizures can also happen. And sadly, thousands of people in the United States lose their lives to influenza each year. Last year, 100 kids died from influenza in the United States — a number I feel is far too large for a disease that is preventable.
So, what can you do to prevent influenza? The first and most important thing is good, old-fashioned hand washing. Influenza spreads through saliva and boogers. Stop the spread by covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and by washing your hands often.
Encourage your children to wash their hands often, too. Fun ideas to help teach your child good infection-control habits can be found online. The first is an activity book called Ready Wrigley Prepares for Flu Season. You can get a free download from the CDC website.
Along with appropriate hand hygiene, I recommend you and your children get flu shots.
A shot is definitely not fun, but I guarantee it is a lot more fun than dealing with influenza or any of the possible complications.
There are several reasons why getting a flu shot is a good idea. The first is that it will make your doctor happy! OK, all joking aside, the flu shot is the best method to prevent influenza.
The vaccination decreases the risk of getting the flu by about 50-80 percent, depending on the type of flu season we are having. Now, you might say, “Only 50 percent? That’s like flipping a quarter. Is it really worth it?” Yes it is.
Let’s say you go to Jackpot for the weekend, and you can decrease your chances of losing by 50 percent, would you take that chance? Even if you or your children were to get influenza after getting flu shots, the symptoms are usually less severe and don’t last as long.
Now, I’ve heard several excuses as to why people don’t want to get flu shots. Most of them are circulating on Facebook as you read this article. Excuses like “I got the flu shot once and it made me sick,” “My kids and I never leave the house,” “I have an egg allergy,” “I’m scared of the complications of the flu shot” and “Doesn’t the flu shot cause autism?”
All of these excuses are unfounded:
The flu shot is a vaccination, and all vaccinations activate your immune system. When your immune system is activated, you likely are going to feel sick for a few days. This is normal, and it means your immune system is working. So yes, you can feel sick after the flu shot but it is far “less sick” than getting the actual influenza virus.
Germs are everywhere even in your house. It is impossible to live in a bubble, and even if your kids don’t go to daycare or school, chances are they will still be exposed to influenza somewhere.
It is true that there is a very small amount of egg protein in a flu shot. It is so small though that even if you have severe egg allergy, it will likely not affect you.
One of the worst complications from the flu vaccination is called Guillain-Barre syndrome. It causes progressive paralysis that eventually goes away. Not fun, right? But take note: You have far higher chance of getting this syndrome from the influenza virus than from the flu shot.
The flu shot does not cause autism. There are very large bodies of research and data that clearly show this.
In summary, influenza is not fun, but it is preventable. Do your best to prevent it with good hand hygiene and a flu shot.