Flu vaccines are running low, emergency rooms are flooded with patients, and public health authorities are calling this the worst flu season in a decade. What can parents and children do to dodge the bug?
Johns Hopkins Children’s Center pediatric infectious disease specialist Pranita Tamma, M.D., shares some insights:
Now that the flu is here and people are getting sick, is it too late to get vaccinated?
No. The “better later than never” rule applies here. Although the ideal time to get vaccinated is in September, it is never too late because flu season can last as late as May. Getting protection for the latter part of flu season is far better than having no protection at all. This said, we can never predict ahead of time when flu season will end. Vaccines remain the best way to prevent the flu.
Are there any medicines available to treat the flu?
Antiviral drugs can help treat the flu, but they work best if started within 48 hours of developing symptoms. They are optional for children who are otherwise healthy or who do not need to be hospitalized. Children with certain underlying conditions or those who need to be admitted to the hospital should take antiviral medication. Discuss antivirals with your pediatrician.
How long does it take for the immune system to build up immunity from the point of vaccination?
About two weeks after receiving the vaccine, the immune system makes antibodies against the specific viruses in the vaccine. Children with compromised immune systems may develop antibodies more slowly or may never develop adequate protection after vaccination. Parents should always discuss with their pediatrician whether their child is a candidate for the flu vaccine.
What can/should people do if they have been diagnosed with the flu to prevent spread to others?
The flu virus spreads mainly by droplets when infected people cough, sneeze, or even talk. Less commonly, if a flu-carrying droplet lands on a surface or if a flu-infected person touches a surface, the virus can then end up on the hands of others who may subsequently touch their nose, mouth or eyes and get infected. This is why it is very important for people diagnosed with the flu to wash their hands frequently with either soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs. It is also a good idea to cough or sneeze into a tissue (which should be thrown away after use) rather than in your hands. If someone in your household has the flu, ask your doctor if pre-emptive antiviral medication is an option for others in the home. Clean common surfaces like the kitchen counter, bathroom sink, light switches, door knobs, etc., with household disinfectants. It is best for your child to stay home from school, camp, daycare, and any other activities that could expose others to the virus. If your child needs to go outside of the house, he or she should wear a mask to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus to others.
How long is the incubation period and how long does the contagious phase last?
Most healthy children and adults with the flu can infect others beginning about one day before developing any symptoms and up to seven days after the symptoms resolve. People with weakened immune systems can remain contagious for up to several weeks.
How serious is the flu? Do I really need to worry?
The flu is somewhat unpredictable in how severe it can be. For most people, it is more of a nuisance and with proper rest and supportive care, symptoms resolve. There are, unfortunately, some perfectly healthy children who develop the flu and suffer severe consequences, though we cannot always determine who will fall into this category. What we do know is that young children (particularly those under 2 years of age), children with asthma, heart disease, neurologic disorders, sickle cell disease, liver or kidney disorders, or HIV and other conditions that weaken the immune system are at risk for more severe complications. Although all children should get vaccinated, children with any of these conditions are a priority population and should always get vaccinated and seek medical attention when flu-like symptoms develop.
Is it possible to get the flu even after vaccination?
Getting a flu vaccine greatly reduces the risk of getting the flu but it does not guarantee that a child will not get the flu. In developing the vaccine, physicians and scientists make a best guess based on recent flu patterns to determine the most likely flu strains for the season. Unfortunately, there can be strains circulating in the environment that are not in the vaccine. The flu vaccine includes three strains of the influenza virus. The good news is that even if the vaccine strains and the circulating strains are not perfect matches, the vaccine can still provide some protection because viral strains share similarities. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to elicit the proper protective response, so if someone is infected soon after receiving the vaccine, or if he or she was exposed to the virus before receiving the vaccine, symptoms can still develop.
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