In households with small children, flu symptoms are as routine as dirty socks. Take them seriously, though, warns a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because the flu can kill healthy children within days.
Among the 829 children who died of the flu from 2004 to September 2012, 43 percent of them were healthy a few days before. And, the previously healthy group died to the flu three days faster than children with existing medical problems did.
"This underscores why children should have flu vaccines every year and why kids should be treated quickly," said Dr. Karen Wong, the study's lead researcher and epidemic intelligence service officer with the CDC.
The study was presented in San Diego at the IDWeek 2012 conference, which convened doctors from the infectious diseases field.
The flu (influenza) is an evolving collection of viruses of the nose, lungs and throat. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, aches, chills, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea.
Children are especially vulnerable if they have chronic problems including asthma, lung or heart disease, blood disorders, obesity, diabetes or neurological disorders. The latter, especially, were victims of the 2009 H1N1 epidemic.
Most people recover from the flu, but complications include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections and worsening of existing conditions such as congestive heart failure. Complications are more serious for the very young and elderly.
The CDC recommends children and adults get annual flu vaccines, beginning at age six months of age. Shots can help pregnant women protect their babies from the flu for several months after birth.
Flu vaccine rates decreased slightly since 2010 for adults but did not change significantly for children. The older the child, the lower the rate. The older the adult, the higher the rate.
In another study presented at IDWeek last month, researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) found when school vaccination rates were at least 46.5 percent, fewer unvaccinated students got the flu.
The 2010-11 study involved 4,500 children at eight elementary schools in Los Angeles. Compliance rates for in-school vaccinations were from 26.9 to 46.5 percent per school. Unvaccinated students at the schools with the lower rates were no less likely to get the flu than the general population was.
"Increasing rates at elementary schools is ideal because these kids are pretty good at spreading it," said Dr. Pia Pannaraj, lead researcher and assistant professor of pediatrics at USC. "If they don't get their shots, they spread the flu to other kids, Grandma and Grandpa and everyone at the grocery store."
In addition to getting flu shots, the CDC's tip sheet tells parents to teach children to cover their coughs and sneezes with tissues and to wash their hands often.
If your child is 5 years or younger, or any age with an existing health problem, call the doctor when flu symptoms appear. Get emergency care if the child has trouble breathing, has bluish or grayish skin, is not drinking fluids, has severe vomiting, will not wake up or does not want to be held.
"For little children, don't wait. It can progress quickly," said Wong.
"People think of the flu as common and no big deal, but it kills thousands of Americans every year," said Pannaraj. "Get vaccinated, and you help protect the whole community."