This article on influenza – or flu as it is commonly known – explains the common symptoms of flu and how to care for your afflicted child.

What is the flu?

The flu is common and often nasty – you’ll have aching muscles, a throbbing head, a high temperature and a host of other symptoms. Influenza makes you feel generally unwell, miserable and want to stay in bed.

The flu can also cause upper respiratory symptoms such as coughs and a blocked nose as well as sore throats, sore ears and sore sinuses, along with fever and chills. Fatigue is a real issue. Flu can hit hard and take longer to recover from than an ordinary cold.

An influenza virus causes flu (the name ‘flu’ is abbreviated from the term influenza). New forms of the influenza virus develop constantly – a new strain usually appears each year. Children and the elderly are most at risk of flu becoming a more serious illness.

Flu is very infectious and is contracted by coughing, sneezing or direct contact with someone with the illness. The flu will keep you or your child feeling unwell for up to 10 days.

What are the signs and symptoms of flu?

  • Dry hacking cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • High fever (39 degrees Celsius or above)
  • Chills
  • Intense muscle aches
  • Severe headache
  • Sore eyes
  • Sore sinuses
  • Loss of appetite
  • In children a flu bug can also cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea

Treatment for influenza

Each year the government, through health authorities such as general practitioners and the District Health Boards, offers a flu vaccine.

It is often recommended for the elderly (those over 65), those with a compromised immune system, or people with heart and lung problems.

If your child catches the flu, you should:

  • Avoid other people – keep your child home to prevent spreading the illness
  • Keep your child warm and dry – make sure the room/house is well heated
  • Rest – keep children in bed or on the sofa (DVDs are great for this!)
  • Get them to drink plenty of fluids – at least eight glasses of liquid a day. Fluids are especially important if your child has a fever – offer diluted fruit juice, water, iceblocks or clear soup
  • Pain relief such as paracetamol might be needed – but remember to never give aspirin to children (anyone under age 21) as it can cause a severe illness called Reye’s syndrome which affects all organs in the body and particularly the liver and brain
  • Provide natural or medicated lozenges to suck to help with a sore throat
  • Gargle with salt water to help with a sore throat
  • Humidify the air – to help ease sore throats and dry nasal passages and sinuses
  • Ease aching muscles with a warm wheat or other heat pack
  • Adults should stop smoking and avoid alcohol

Flu vaccine

The flu vaccine is available through your general practitioner. While the holistic health community would generally advise against people receiving the flu and other vaccines, the Ministry of Health and medical practitioners recommend the flu vaccine for older or immune-compromised people.

Dr Lance Jennings, spokesperson for the National Influenza Strategy Group (NISG) says the influenza virus changes each year, so annual immunisation is recommended.

For instance, the three strains identified by the World Health Organisation for inclusion in the Southern Hemisphere vaccine in 2006 were the A/New Caledonia/20/99 (H1N1)-like strain; the A/California/7/2004 (H3N2)-like strain and the B/Malaysia/2506/2004-like strain.

The vaccines is free for those New Zealanders at high risk of the illness – people over 65 and those with health conditions including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, respiratory and kidney disease and those with cancer.

The flu vaccine is licensed for use in children aged six months and older. (Talk to your doctor about advisability of flu vaccination during pregnancy).

The NISG says studies show the flu vaccine in adults produces a 53% reduction in pneumonia; 50% fewer hospital admissions with respiratory illness and 68% fewer deaths. Dr Jennings says the seasonal flu vaccine would not protect people from a pandemic outbreak of the illness. Also you may still contract a strain of flu circulating in the community that has not been included in the vaccine you have been given.

The Ministry of Health says the influenza immunisation is the best protection against the flu: the holistic health community would say the best protection is building up a strong immune system through dietary and lifestyle measures and appropriate natural supplementation.

The Ministry of Health says most people have no reaction to the flu injection, though some people may feel unwell for a day or two, but that these are normal responses to the immunisation.

Symptoms following vaccination are more likely in children who have not previously had the vaccine or the flu. These symptoms can include fever, feeling unwell and muscle aches.

People who are hypersensitive to egg protein or feathers should not receive the vaccine; people with high fevers should not receive the vaccine until symptoms have gone; people with Guillain-Barre Syndrome should seek detailed information as to the safety of receiving the vaccine.

Risks and complications of flu

Watch your child for any of the following complications and risks:

  • Dehydration
  • Convulsions
  • Ear infections
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • The flu can exacerbate chronic medical conditions such as lung and heart problems in children
  • Death may result in extreme circumstances.

Seek medical attention if:

  • The voice becomes hoarse
  • Your child develops chest pains, severe vomiting or confusion
  • Your child is bringing up yellow or green coloured mucous
  • The fever is very high or doesn’t go away
  • Your child stops drinking fluids
  • Your child develops a bad earache
  • Your child is hard to wake up
  • Your child becomes very irritable
  • Your child’s skin becomes very pale or develops a blue-tinge
  • Seek urgent attention if your child has trouble breathing

How to treat a child with the flu at home?

  • A back rub with essential oils like lavender or with rubbing medications available from the pharmacy can be soothing
  • Give your child light, nutritious meals – ensure their diet is rich in foods containing vitamin C: citrus fruits, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, tomatoes, carrots
  • High doses of vitamin C given at the first feeling you may be developing the flu can often stop the virus in its track. Choose a good quality, natural form of vitamin C
  • Garlic in the food or in supplement form can help ward off the flu
  • Other supplements used in fighting the flu include Omega 3, ginger, Echinacea, liquorice, vitamin B6 (found in fish, meat, bananas, beans, wholegrains and nuts)

Now that you know more about the flu, you may want to arm yourself with more expert health advice in our Common childhood illnesses section.

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Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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