It’s that time of year again–pediatricians’ offices are overflowing with sniffling, coughing kids. It’s hard to watch your child suffer, hacking away in misery. What can you do to make your child feel better fast? When should you see your pediatrician? Should you get a flu shot? And when should you bring on the heavy artillery and bombard your child’s illness with potent medicines? Here’s what you need to know for the season ahead.
IS IT A COLD OR THE FLU?
To give your child the best treatment, you have to know what you’re fighting. Colds are caused by rhinoviruses, which infect the upper respiratory tract and enter the body through the mouth or nose. There are more than 200 cold-causing viruses, so it’s nearly impossible to make an effective vaccine to prevent all of them (although researchers are trying). Colds typically start gradually, with a ticklish throat or a cough that will turn into an array of symptoms–runny or stuffed-up nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, chest congestion, chills, and muscle aches–within one or two days. The good news is that colds usually subside within a few days.
Influenza, however, is caused by a different class of viruses. At first it’s hard to distinguish the flu from other respiratory infections because symptoms are so similar. But the flu is more than just a bad cold, and an exceptionally virulent strain can weaken the body’s natural defenses against potentially deadly infections. That’s why it’s important to determine exactly what ails your child. Otherwise, complications like pneumonia can be overlooked.
The hallmarks of influenza are a raging fever, usually higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sudden onset of symptoms: Your child might feel fine in the morning and be bedridden by nightfall. Sufferers can be miserable for a week or more with high fever, headaches, and debilitating fatigue.
When should you take your child to the doctor? If your child’s symptoms worsen abruptly within a few days. If a child keeps getting sicker, something more than a cold or flu might be going on.
THE TRUTH ABOUT FLU SHOTS
The best time to get the flu shot is between mid-October and mid- November, six to eight weeks before the flu season hits its peak. Bear in mind, though, that there’s no guarantee flu vaccines are 100 percent effective. Based on worldwide monitoring, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta makes an educated guess about which flu strains are most likely to hit that winter; vaccines are then formulated based on that research. If the agency guesses wrong–which it did in the 1997-98 season–the flu shot isn’t much help against the viruses that will make your child sick.
You can request the flu shot for your child, but normally it isn’t necessary unless children have chronic medical conditions or if they are regularly exposed to someone who is in a high-risk group, such as an elderly relative.
In the meantime, what can parents do to make their kids feel better? Instead of your doctor’s office, head to your pharmacy. Antibiotics can’t keep colds or the flu at bay–even though overanxious parents often pressure their pediatricians to prescribe them. Over time, this can cause antibiotic resistance. Many over-the-counter preparations, like throat lozenges, cough suppressants, and decongestants can provide some temporary relief for sore throats, stuffy noses, and hacking coughs. Doctors also recommend acetaminophen to ease aches and fever. (Children shouldn’t take aspirin or products containing aspirin because of the possibility of contracting Reye’s syndrome, especially if they have the flu.) Pass on antihistamines, which won’t help even if your child has a runny nose. Of course, you must be cautious when doctoring your kids, and don’t exceed the dosages recommended for children on the label.
The best medicine is getting plenty of bed rest, and drinking at least eight glasses of hot and cold fluids a day, to thin mucus and avoid dehydration from congestion and fever.