Every year, the influenza virus makes millions of people miserable. You can catch it in summer, but it’s more common in winter, probably less because of the weather than because people are inside more and in closer quarters. The flu starts with a sudden onset of high fever, headaches, and muscle pain, sometimes accompanied by nasal discharge and cough. In younger children, the fever is less prominent, and upper respiratory symptoms are more pronounced. The flu virus evolves constantly, and the severity of the illness varies with the virulence of the yearly strain. Some years, flu is no big deal; in others, it’s a significant public health concern.
Flu lasts three to five days, after which time the fever should be down or gone and the other symptoms greatly diminished. Occasionally, the fever will disappear and return for a day before subsiding completely. Some controversial anti-flu medications for adults exist but are not recommended in children because of poor efficacy and side effects.
Complications from flu are fairly rare, although they do exist. Ear infections are the most typical and are usually accompanied by a persistent or worsening fever and discomfort. An older child will point to his ear and tip you off to an ear infection. Ear infections usually do not require antibiotic treatment unless they fail to improve within a couple of days. [See: Ear Infections].
A rarer complication is pneumonia, which shows up as a tenacious fever and causes a decline in the general condition. Instead of improving, Jimmy looks sicker and sicker. His appetite decreases. He may even have a productive cough and some difficulty breathing. This constellation of symptoms should prompt you to seek medical attention.
The flu vaccine is not that effective. It’s a pain in the butt and a headache as well, since it has to be given every year by injection. The protection depends on the yearly strain, but keep in mind that even if Jimmy gets the vaccine there is a very good chance he’ll get the flu anyway. Since flu symptoms are milder in children, I don’t recommend routine immunization unless there is an underlying chronic condition such as asthma that might make a flu rougher going.