Health & Wellness
As the seasons shift, so does our attention to one of the perennial health concerns: the flu season. With the ongoing challenges of managing various health concerns, like COVID-19 and RSV, understanding the nuances of the upcoming influenza season is key. Maulin Soneji, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital provides his expertise and insights on what we can anticipate this upcoming flu season, the importance of vaccination, and practical strategies for parents.
How does the severity of this year's flu season compare to previous years?
The influenza season is just beginning, so it's uncertain how severe it will be. In a typical season, there are 9 to 41 million infections, 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths. While most deaths are in adults, around 100 child deaths occur each year, with severe seasons having up to 200 child deaths, mainly in those under two years old.
The good news is that a vaccine is available for everyone over six months. Think of influenza vaccination as wearing a seatbelt in a car. A seatbelt doesn't prevent accidents, but it significantly improves your outcomes if an accident happens. Similarly, the influenza vaccine won't stop all cases of flu, but it lowers the likelihood of seeking medical care, hospitalization, ICU admission, ventilator use, and death. The CDC is changing its message with a new campaign called "Wild to Mild," emphasizing that the vaccine may not prevent all infections but can make them less severe.
How effective is this year's flu vaccine in children, and are there any specific age groups that should be prioritized?
As the influenza season is just starting, we can't assess vaccine effectiveness yet. Generally, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends the flu vaccine for everyone over six months old. Pediatricians should focus on children under two years old and those with asthma or weakened immune systems because they're at higher risk of hospitalization. Notably, the past recommendation against the flu vaccine for those with egg allergies no longer applies, as newer manufacturing techniques have made it safe for most individuals.
Influenza treatment options include oral antivirals, inhaled medication, and intravenous treatment. These can reduce symptoms if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset. Oral and inhaled meds can also be used for preventive measures after exposure to the virus, but not everyone needs them. Consult your primary care physician for guidance.
Can you explain the difference between a cold and the flu for parents who might be unsure about their child's symptoms?
Distinguishing between the common cold and influenza can be challenging because they share many similar symptoms, such as fever, cough, runny nose, congestion, and sore throat. Some individuals, particularly those with asthma, may experience shortness of breath with either illness. The common cold is caused by various respiratory viruses, including rhinovirus, coronavirus, parainfluenza, human metapneumovirus, and adenovirus. These viruses can circulate simultaneously, so a child can catch one and then another a month later. The difference is that influenza typically involves severe body aches, often described as feeling like being run over by a truck.
How can schools and parents help prevent the spread of the flu among children?
Influenza spreads through respiratory droplets, and the main preventive measures include covering coughs and sneezes, wearing masks, and keeping sick children home from school. However, taking time off from work and workplace policies can make this a challenging task for parents.