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The Informed Parent

The Flu Bug Strikes Again

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Nov. 01, 1998

Now that we are well into the school year we can expect an increasing amount of illnesses. In particular children do bring home what most parents call the flu. We need to be more precise with that diagnosis. Numerous episodes of coughing and cold symptoms seen during the school year are for the most part not influenza viral infections. They are generally respiratory viral infections, and are not from the influenza virus family. Influenza virus (the true flu) is a severe illness which causes significantly more morbidity and mortality.

Symptoms of the typical influenza illness are an abrupt onset of fever, flushing, chills, headache, and body ache. The temperature can hover between 102 and 105 degrees. Dry cough, sore throat, prostration, dizziness, and photophobia are also frequently seen. The initial fever may last five-to-six days, leading into respiratory symptoms and coughing for the next ten-to-fourteen days. Obviously the "true flu" is often a two-to-three week illness.

On the other hand, the respiratory viral infection predominantly causes respiratory symptoms with none or less of the general body discomfort as described above. It has a duration period of four-to-six days. In general, the symptoms are much less severe than influenza.

To prevent the spread of either type of respiratory infection common precautions should be followed: frequent hand washing, covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, or probably most important, not sending a sick child to school. In a classroom setting it is virtually impossible to isolate children from the risk of the common cold. The good news is the 1998-99 influenza vaccine, given to prevent and/or lessen the symptoms of the true flu, is available through mid-December. Medical research is developing new medications to be used in the prevention and treatment of true influenza that is expected to be up to 80% effective. Unfortunately, they will not be available for general use for one-to-two years.

This flu vaccine is composed of viruses that are in a non-infectious form. Therefore, it does not cause influenza. Each year's influenza vaccine contains several viruses which are believed to be the current circulating strains. This year's flu shot should correlate well with the circulating strains and yield good protection to those receiving it.

Certain risk groups should receive the vaccine: persons sixty-five years of age or older, residents of skilled nursing facilities, adults and children with chronic pulmonary or cardiovascular disease, children with asthma, diabetics, patients with kidney or blood disease, and children on long-term aspirin therapy. Some medical experts believe that everyone should receive the flu vaccine. Since there are minimal, if any, side effects, the benefits of receiving it far outweigh any risk of provoked flu symptoms. Your child's personal physician is the best source of answers for specific questions regarding the use of the vaccine or preventive medication.

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