Along with holiday cheer, snow and cold weather comes Influenza (flu) and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), two common winter illnesses that can be very serious for children. Below is Part II of my primer on winter illnesses.
Influenza (flu): This illness presents with the sudden onset of fever (often with chills), headache, diffuse body aches, lethargy and non-productive cough. During the course of the first few days, upper respiratory symptoms worsen and evolve into lots of congestion, productive cough and sore throat. Think of flu as a common cold magnified 100%. Symptoms such as conjunctivitis (pink eye), abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are uncommon with influenza. The illness is highly contagious and primarily spread by respiratory secretions….infected people sneezing and coughing. Annually, 10-40% of healthy children getting flu. The peak incidence in the United States is anytime between November to March but most commonly between January and March. Influenza is largely diagnosed clinically. The tests commercially available are not reliable and I would trust a pediatrician’s exam and clinical opinion much more than a test in most cases. Children less than 24 months have a higher risk for complications from influenza including hospitalization and death. The CDC data from the 2016-17 season note a total of 101 flu associated deaths in children with the majority of those occurring in unvaccinated children. Treatment of flu is usually symptomatic only. Tamiflu, an antiviral medication which decreases the replication of the influenza virus is not a cure but has been shown to decrease the duration of the illness by several days. It is not recommended for the healthy pediatric patient older than 2 years old and side effects such as nausea and vomiting are very common.
After years of seeing lots of children with influenza, there are a few symptoms that I have found to be most concerning to parents of children of all ages.
#1 fever – it is high! The highest fever I have ever seen with any infectious disease is with influenza. It was 106.3 and I was more affected by the number than the 3 year old sitting on the exam table. While the child surprisingly didn’t look that ill with the fever, she definitely seemed like she felt better when it was brought down. Parents should be prepared for high fever of 103+ that can persist for 3-6 days and remember that most children do look listless with fever. The child may also have a pounding heart rate and they are often breathing fast which are normal body responses to higher temperatures. Hallucinations can also sometimes occur. The important thing to do immediately is get the fever down, not rush to the ER or call 911. Fever in and of itself is not a medical emergency. Take off some clothes or blankets, apply cool compresses, give fever reducer and monitor closely for the child to seem overall more comfortable when the fever lowers. I recommend parents call their pediatrician if the fever is greater than 104, persists longer than 72 hours or if the child is ill appearing regardless of fever. As long as the fever comes down and the child seems happier or states they feel better, this can be done during regular business hours.
#2 Markedly decreased activity – Children ill with the flu literally just want to do nothing for 7-10 days. This is understandably very disturbing to parents of children of all ages, especially because most children are innately very active. Many parents use the word “lethargic” which is defined medically as an “abnormal state of drowsiness due to disease or drugs”. A lethargic child is somewhat unarousable, much sicker appearing and most likely not able to use or even be interested in a smart phone or I-pad ( I suppose a good crude way to test degree of illness in 2018). I try to frame this concerning behavior in a positive light when I counsel parents. It is good the child is comfortable enough to rest as this is what is needed to improve and fight off the illness. Regardless of the amount of daytime sleep/rest, parents should see periodic episodes during the course of the day when a child perks up, asks for Elmo or checks Instagram and generally seems more like him/herself, even if 20 minutes later they are back on the couch asleep.
#3 Body aches and pains – When I examine a child and I feel like they are uncomfortable with me even laying my stethoscope on their chests, I always worry about flu. Children with flu often seem like every ounce of their body hurts …maybe another reason why activity is so diminished. In addition to diffuse generalized body aches, increased muscle breakdown due to the virus can occur in large muscles such as the thighs and calves and affect a child’s desire to walk. (think of how you might feel after an intense leg work-out). In this case, increased intake of fluids is essential to help.
With regard to influenza, here are my top pieces of advice:
- Get your child vaccinated. There is no reason to not try to protect your child from this illness.
- If you child is less than 2 years old or has a chronic medical problem such as diabetes or asthma, and you believe they may have influenza, see a doctor sooner rather than later for an evaluation. This recommendation is the same whether or not he/she received the flu vaccine. Based on your doctor’s evaluation, Tamiflu may be recommended as treatment and is most effective is used within the first 48-72 hours of illness.
- Control the fever, push lots of liquids and be prepared for lots of rest. Remember to watch for periods of time daily where your child perks up and is looking to watch their favorite movie or eat their favorite snack.
- Do not use aspirin to control fever in a child, especially if you think they have influenza. Instead use Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen.
- Check in with your doctor for advice and recommendations on whether or not to be seen. If the fever has persisted beyond 3-4 days and/or the child looks more ill than usual. An evaluation may be warranted to rule out any secondary bacterial infection such as an ear infection or pneumonia.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): This is one of the most common diseases of early childhood. Most children are infected in the first year of life and nearly all are infected by the second year of life. Again, a very bad common cold with lower respiratory tract or wheezing 20-30% of the time. The lower tract symptoms are called bronchiolitis – inflammation of the bronchioles or small airways in the lungs. RSV is one of many viruses that can cause bronchiolitis. This inflammation results in wheezing as well as what parents sometimes describe as “rattling” in the chest or “chest congestion”. If your hand is on your child’s chest, you can feel a vibration like sensation when they breathe. This usually clears with coughing or crying. It is also usually causes increased respiratory rate or very fast breathing almost like panting. Other symptoms include fever and copious amounts of congestion. Infection is spread by contact with this congestion – sneezing, coughing, contaminated surfaces such as hands or daycare toys. Secondary complications such as ear infections can occur and the cough/wheezing associated with RSV can take 4-6 weeks to completely resolve.
The most frustrating aspect of these diseases for both pediatricians and parents is the lack of treatment other than time and close monitoring. Even in situations where patients are in respiratory distress requiring hospitalization and supplemental oxygen, they are provided symptomatic care only in a safe controlled setting and VERY closely monitored. There are no medications to make this virus go away. In the past, doctors prescribed Albuterol – a medicine that opens the airways that is used for people with asthma. Many studies have now shown this does not help with viral induced wheezing/bronchiolitis and it is not currently recommended. Given this often unsettling and nerve-racking watch and wait approach, my top pieces of advice for RSV are as follows:
- Synagis is a monthly immunization against RSV that may be recommended for some patients. Ask your doctor about Synagis if your child was born at less than 28 weeks gestation and will be less than 6 months of age going into the RSV season (November through March) or if they have a chronic medical condition.
- Physicians talk about “happy wheezers” – a child that is breathing fast but happy and smiling despite it all. As in flu, how a child appears is so important in judging severity of illness. If your child is breathing fast but happy, be less concerned. However, if you child is breathing fast and very fussy and despite doing all the things you know to do that normally calm him/her down, he/she is still fussy, worry more and call your pediatrician.
- Most children that are in respiratory distress will not eat. Not my appetite is down because I am sick and want to eat less but I am hungry but cannot physically eat and breathe at the same time.
- Look at your child’s chest to help differentiate between upper airway congestion (heard easily without a stethoscope) and lower airway wheezing (heard only with a stethoscope unless very severe). If you see the outline of the ribcage and all the ribs with breathing and the child’s abdomen is moving up and down very fast, this is more likely to be lower airway wheezing and the child should be evaluated.
- As with flu, if a fever persists greater than 3-4 days and/or the child looks more ill than usual, an evaluation may be warranted to rule out any secondary bacterial infection such as an ear infection or pneumonia.
I hope the information provided was both interesting and helpful for those families reading. Please remember to teach your child to cover your cough and practice lots of hand washing. Wishing all a Happy New Year and a healthy 2018!