Cold & Flu: What You Need to Know

Cold-Flu

This cold & flu season has been a doozy—everyone from co-workers to kids to friends seems to have been knocked out of commission by illness at some point this winter. And according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), flu can make lives miserable through May! So we talked to Dr. Katherine Noble (aka “Dr. Katy”) of Sound Beach Pediatrics in Stamford about how to stay healthy.

It seems like everyone around us is coughing and sneezing. Is this a particularly bad flu season?
Yes, we are experiencing a very heavy flu season in the office, affecting our immunized and non-immunized patients. This has been one of the busiest flu seasons I can recall in clinical practice. Our experience is consistent with the CDC, whose most recent weekly update reported “widespread” influenza in Connecticut.

How effective is this year’s vaccine, and how dangerous is this strain?
The CDC is reporting vaccine efficacy of about 48% this year, similar to last year’s rate of 47%. Fortunately, most of our patients are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms and we have not seen much severe illness or any life-threatening complications thus far. But of note, the CDC reports 34 deaths in children thus far in the 2016-2017 Flu Season.

What are the best ways to prevent the cold and flu?
Get your flu shot! Wash your hands. Finally, if you are sick with the flu, stay home and rest and do not return to school or work until you are fever-free for at least 24 hours (without anti-fever medication like Motrin or Tylenol!).

How can you tell a cold from the flu?
“Colds” and “flu” are viral diseases that cause runny noses and coughs. Flu is unique in that it is caused by the influenza virus, which is highly contagious and more virulent than the common cold—it can cause more significant fever, aches, chills, headache and fatigue. It can also cause some vomiting and diarrhea, particularly in children.

How do you treat each and when should you call the doctor?
Colds are best treated supportively—saline, steam, Motrin or Tylenol and fluids. Simple colds in healthy children can be managed at home. Young infants should be evaluated, particularly if there is fever, irritability or significant cough. If you think you (or your child) has the flu, regardless of the age, it is best to see your doctor. Your child may then have the option to take an antiviral drug, like Tamiflu, which can shorten the duration and decrease the severity of the illness— best started within 48 hours of onset of symptoms. And, there is the additional option to preventatively treat loved ones in the same household.

Do products like Emergen-C or popping extra vitamin C really work?
Supplements are not FDA-approved and generally not proven to be efficacious. I steer parents of sick patients away from supplements and over-the-counter cough/cold remedies (which are also not proven to be effective in children) and more towards simple fluids, rest, and good nutrition!

What are some misconceptions that people have about cold and flu?
I am more concerned about misconceptions about the flu vaccine than I am about mix-ups between cold and flu! Every year, influenza is responsible for many hospitalization and deaths in adults and children. I ask parents to strongly consider vaccinating their children to lessen their chances of contracting the flu. In the event that an immunized child contracts influenza, the vaccine can still provide benefit and protection and disease is typically milder. (It’s not too late to get your flu vaccine this year!)

Why is the flu extra dangerous for babies and kids?
Young children under 5, particularly under age 2, and especially infants under 6 months of age, are at risk of serious and even life-threatening complications of influenza. (The elderly and those with chronic health conditions like asthma are also at higher risk). Vaccinating young children is especially important (I recommend it for all). And if you have an infant at home who is too young to receive the vaccination (ie. under 6 months), please protect your baby and immunize all other family members and caretakers!

What are your favorite natural remedies for treating symptoms?
I love simplicity: steam and saline/suction for babies, saline spray or rinses for older children who can tolerate it. Elevation on two pillows (for older children) can help relieve some of the facial pressure and congestion. Beware of humidifiers, which can harbor bacteria and mold. Benadryl for children can decrease nasal congestion and usually results in drowsiness that can provide more peaceful sleep. Motrin and Tylenol are useful for fever or discomfort. Remember, no over the counter remedy has been proven to make a significant difference in the course or duration of the common cold! Chicken soup has garnered some research interest—at a minimum, the salt and fluids help with hydration! (I’d rather support grandma’s soup-making than the OTC cold remedy industry!)

We’ve heard that antibacterial sanitizers and soaps aren’t a good idea. What’s the truth on this?
The truth is hand washing is a must. When soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol—but beware that if your hands are filthy or greasy, it may not be very effective. The CDC reports that there is no added benefit to antibacterial soap over standard soap (in non-health care settings). The CDC also states that hand-washing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31 percent, reduces diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58 percent, and reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16-21 percent.

Any other tips for protecting your family from cold and flu this season?
As you consider health decisions for your family, please go to a reliable source. I go to the CDC (CDC.gov), the AAP (AAP.org) and HealthyChildren.org (healthychildren.org). Google hits forwarding parents to random websites and anecdotal reports can be confusing and fuel misinformation!

Photograph by Alexander Raths/shutterstock.com

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