“Mom, I feel cold and achy…”
As a parent, you dread hearing those words. Chills and body aches could mean the flu, especially at this time of year. And if it’s a weekday, that means keeping your child home from school. But then what?
First of all, make sure you recognize the typical flu symptoms: fever, chills, cough, muscle or body aches, vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms can come on suddenly and often point to influenza, although it doesn’t mean that all these symptoms have to be present. Children, for example, are more likely to experience vomiting and diarrhea than adults. And not everyone with the flu spikes a fever.1
To get a quick, official confirmation that it’s really the flu virus and not, say, a cold or stomach bug, your child should have a flu test. Traditionally, the most accurate flu tests had to be sent to central labs for processing, but today’s molecular tests – like the ID NOW™ Influenza A & B 2 – provide accurate, on-the-spot diagnosis within minutes. The simple swab test is available in doctors’ offices as well as urgent care centers, pharmacy clinics and emergency rooms. Getting the right diagnosis right away means starting treatment early on, when those treatments work best.
Once a diagnosis of the flu is confirmed, call the school nurse or the school’s parent coordinator with the information. “It can be more helpful to tell the school that it is because of influenza that your child will be out for a few days,” says Norman Moore, PhD, director of Infectious Diseases Scientific Affairs for Abbott. “Influenza is highly contagious, which makes it a community health concern. It’s important to let the school know that the virus is present so that others in the school community can take precautions.”
The school may have a protocol in place, such as informing the staff and other parents about potential exposure to the flu virus, scheduling hand washing breaks throughout the day or reminding students to cough into their elbows or to use a tissue when coughing.2 The fact is, someone with the flu can spread the virus to others even before severe symptoms are evident, and classrooms are flu-friendly environments. The school nurse might also take the opportunity to remind members of the school community to get a flu shot if they haven’t already. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone over six months of age. While there are still a lot of misconceptions about the flu vaccine, it remains the single most important way to help reduce flu illness.3
Treating the Flu
Getting an accurate diagnosis for your child also means he or she is more likely to be treated correctly. This is important for the flu because antiviral medications must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be effective. These medications can help shorten the duration of the flu while preventing serious flu complications (such as ear infection in children and pneumonia).4 Being treated correctly also means that your child won’t get antibiotics if they don’t need them. In the case of the flu, antibiotics don’t help at all and could potentially slow recovery.5
The Road to Recovery
There are other important steps to take when your child is home sick with the flu. Make sure he or she stays well hydrated. Water, sports drinks and clear broth are best; avoid colas and tea with caffeine. Ice chips or frozen pops often help if your child has a sore throat.
Stock up on over-the-counter medications, tissues, vapor rubs and other items that make convalescing easier. And don’t forget to use a disinfectant to wipe down toys, doorknobs and bathrooms so that other family members don’t get sick.
Time spent at home should be focused on recovery, not homework. Reschedule assignments with the teacher so that your child can begin to catch up as symptoms diminish.
The All-Clear to Return to Class
When you have to take time off from work or juggle babysitters, it can be tempting to send your child back to school as soon as he or she starts to feel better. But the CDC recommends that sick children remain home for 24 hours after symptoms begin to subside.6 “In the case of the flu, that can be several days from the onset of sickness,” says Dr. Moore. Too soon, and your child may still be shedding the virus.
Your child should also be fever-free (without the help of ibuprofen to tamp down temperature) for 24 hours before heading back to class.
“Identifying the virus early on and being prepared as soon as you notice symptoms will not just speed up your own child’s recovery, it will help keep others in your family and community healthy this flu season,” Dr. Moore says.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Flu symptoms & diagnosis. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/index.html
2CDC. Guidance for school administrators to help reduce the spread of seasonal influenza in K-12 schools. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/school/guidance.htm#schoolage
3CDC. Who needs a flu vaccine and when. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccinations.htm
4CDC. Influenza Antiviral Medications: Summary for Clinicians. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/antivirals/summary-clinicians.htm
5Bradley KC et al. Microbiota-driven tonic interferon signals in lung stromal cells protect from influenza virus infection. Cell Reports. 2019; 28 (1): 245-256. Available at: https://www.cell.com/cell-reports/fulltext/S2211-1247(19)30744-2
6CDC. Guidance for school administrators to help reduce the spread of seasonal influenza in K-12 schools. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/school/guidance.htm#schoolage