Influenza is now widespread in Minnesota

By Patsy Stinchfield, MS, CPNP

Patsy is a pediatric nurse practitioner in infectious disease and the director of infection prevention and The Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Update

Influenza is now “widespread” in 35 states, including Minnesota.

There is still time to get vaccinated if you and your family have not yet done so.

To learn more about how Children’s is helping prevent the spread of influenza in the community, click on over to www.childrensMN.org/flu.

This post originally appeared on the Mighty Blog on Jan. 2.

As of Jan. 2, 2014, the Minnesota Department of Health has declared influenza “widespread” across the state, the highest designation level. Over the past two weeks, influenza cases at Children’s have more than doubled, however they still remain below where they were at this time last year. Now that influenza has arrived, it’s likely that it will remain in full swing in Minnesota for the next two months.

So what can you do? The No. 1 way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated. And it’s not too late. Anyone 6 months of age and older who has not received their flu vaccine should do so now. Most clinics and pharmacies are still vaccinating and have a good supply of vaccine. The most common influenza strain we’re seeing is the H1N1 strain which is contained in this year’s vaccine. In addition to getting the vaccine, we also recommend frequent hand washing and avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth prior to washing your hands to help prevent the spread of illness.

If the flu has already reached your house, here are few helpful tips for caring for your child while they’re ill.

What’s the difference between the cold and the flu and how can I tell?

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a child has a cold or the flu because she may cough, have a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue with both. However with the flu, a child tends to have a high fever which comes on more suddenly and may include severe fatigue and body aches. Colds tend to come on more gradually, and many kids may feel well enough to keep playing and going to school with a cold. Clinics may use a rapid nose swab test to determine if someone has influenza.

What should I do if I suspect influenza?

Most cases of influenza are mild and can be managed at home with rest, plenty of fluids, and fever-reducing medicines. Tender-loving care is good medicine, too. Most over-the-counter “cough and cold” medicines do not help a sick child get better faster and won’t have much effect on influenza. Sometimes, the flu can make a child very ill and a visit to the clinic or emergency room is necessary.

When should I take my child to the emergency department?

Take your child to be checked if they have difficulty breathing (fast, grunt-sounding, noisy breathing or small breaths), if their color looks bad (pale or bluish), if they aren’t drinking fluids often or urinating at least once every eight hours, or if they just aren’t themselves and you’re worried. Signs of dehydration are dry lips, sunken eyes, sleepiness or crankiness. Children who seem like they’re getting better and then suddenly get worse should be taken to the Emergency Department immediately. This could mean they have another infection such as pneumonia in addition to the flu.

What are the best ways to get my child’s fever down when she has the flu?

Fever is one of the tools our immune system uses to kill germs. However, children with high fever can feel quite miserable, get crabby, have trouble waking up and may drink less fluids causing dehydration. If you can’t keep the fever down with a fever-reducing medicine such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, then the child should be taken to the clinic or emergency department.

Is there anything else I can do to help make my child more comfortable?

You can keep your child home from day care, school, sports or other activities and have them rest early in their illness until they show signs of getting back to “their normal.” If your child doesn’t want to eat regular meals, don’t insist, but do make sure they drink small amounts of fluids every hour to prevent dehydration.

Is there anything I can do to help my child recover more quickly?

There is an anti-viral medicine called Tamiflu that can be given to children as young as 2 weeks of age. This is used if the child is hospitalized with moderate or severe influenza or if the child is outpatient but at higher risk for complications from influenza. These would be children with immune system problems or neurological, pulmonary, or metabolic underlying conditions. Tamiflu works best if given in the first two days of illness which can cut the severity and number of days of illness in half.

How long will my child be contagious?

Influenza is most contagious the day before symptoms present through about day four of illness. Your child should stay home from school during this time. After viral illnesses, kids can have lingering muscle or body aches and really do need time to rest and recover before rushing back to school. They can often pick up other viruses easily and may have a lingering cough as their airway heals. Depending on the severity of the flu, this may be a few days to a few weeks. Most kids recover within a week. Remember that many schools require that your child be fever-free (without the help of medicines) for one to two days before returning to school or day care.

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