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Could you have the flu?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  January 6, 2014 08:38 AM

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Thumbnail image for flubreak.jpgI saw a child with the flu in clinic last week. At the time I wasn't thinking too much about whether it was the flu or another viral illness; I was thinking more about whether to hospitalize the child, which we did. But when I heard about the positive flu test, I thought: of course.

I also thought: here we go.

According the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people going to the doctor for "influenza-like illness" (we don't test everybody--we go by symptoms, usually) is on the rise. During the week of December 22-28, twenty states reported high levels of flu activity, up from only six states the week before (Massachusetts was not one of the states, phew). That's a big jump. 

It's important to know the signs and symptoms of the flu. People can get very sick, like the child we admitted to the hospital--so being watchful and ready is key. And while we don't usually give medications to treat the flu, in some cases (especially in people who have health problems or for other reasons might get sicker with the flu) we do--and to be effective, the medication really needs to be given in the first couple of days of illness. If people aren't paying attention, they could miss that window of opportunity. 

It's also really important for anyone with the flu to stay home. The flu virus spreads quickly and easily; if you go to work sick, or send your child to school sick, or visit friends or family sick, well, you could make a whole lot of other people sick.

So here are the symptoms:
  • Fever, sometimes high (not everyone with the flu will have a fever, but most do)
  • Cough
  • Runny nose/stuffiness
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Feeling tired
  • Sometimes: vomiting and/or diarrhea
I know, those sound like the symptoms of a cold. It's not always easy to tell the difference. Usually, the flu feels much worse than your average cold. But at this time of year, it's a good idea to stay home even if it just seems like a bad cold--better to be on the safe side. If there is any fever, stay home until it has been gone for 24 hours.

Most of the time, you don't need to go to the doctor. The child I saw was having trouble breathing--if that happens, you absolutely need to go to the doctor. You also need to go if the fever is very high and isn't coming down with medication, if there is extreme sleepiness, the person isn't drinking, there is severe pain, if things are getting worse, or there is some other reason that you feel very worried (I really trust a parent's instincts!). If you aren't sure what to do, call your doctor. Definitely call the doctor if the sick person is under six months old, over 65 years old, or has any medical condition.

As for what to do at home: think fluids and TLC. Clear fluids like chicken soup or clear juice are best. Use a humidifier, and saline nosedrops, for stuffy noses and coughs--for children over a year, honey soothes coughs well too. Extra pillows can help with the post-nasal drip (no pillows for babies!). Lots of rest is key. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with the fever and aches, but be sure to follow directions exactly, and only use them if truly needed. Stay away from cold medicines unless your doctor tells you to use them--they don't do much and can have side effects.

It's not too late to get the flu shot! That, along with lots of hand washing, is the best way to keep the flu away.

To learn more about the flu and what you can do for your family, visit the CDC's flu website.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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