Healthy children still at risk for flu

Flu shot highly recommended for children, parents

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ATLANTA – Hundreds of healthy children die from the flu each year.

While children with high-risk medical conditions including asthma and heart disease are more likely to contract the flu, those without any previous health problems are also susceptible, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

From October 2004 through September 2012, the study showed 830 children died from the flu. Of those children, 43 percent had no high-risk medical conditions.

“It doesn’t matter whether there’s some underlying condition or not,” said Dr. James Fortenberry, pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Healthy children are at risk too – it’s critical that everybody get the flu shot.”

As a pediatric critical care doctor, Fortenberry treats children who have a mild case of the flu, as well as children who end up in the intensive care unit because the virus has become so severe.

“The flu can take a variety of forms, and the reason we’re so concerned is because it can affect so many people, both children and adults. While it simply causes a lot of discomfort for most patients, it can cause life-threatening complications for others,” he said.

Fortenberry added the flu harms children less than 2 years of age because their immune response isn’t as well developed.

“They’re more likely to have a severe form of the flu because unlike teenagers or adults, they haven’t been exposed to different years of the flu to help them build up an immunity to it,” he said.

Which is why, Fortenberry said, the flu vaccine is recommended yearly for all children over the age of 6 months through adulthood.

The exception is children with egg allergies because the vaccine contains eggs. But Fortenberry said even with the allergy, there are preparations that children and parents can take.

And with the National Influenza Vaccination Week approaching, Dec. 8-14, Fortenberry said children are not the only ones who need to be getting their flu shot.

“The No. 1 way to prevent the flu is getting your flu vaccine – and that’s not just the child. Parents need to take care of themselves too,” he said.

In addition to the flu shot, Fortenberry said there are easy steps to prevent contracting the flu.

“Always practice good hand washing because that will prevent the spread of the virus,” he said. “It tends to spread hand to hand, or hand to mouth, so washing your hands and bringing a bottle of hand sanitizer around with you is key.”

For parents, Fortenberry said if their child does catch the flu, the best thing to do is keep them at home.

“They need to be at home resting so that they’re less likely to pass the virus on to someone else. Plenty of fluids, some chicken soup and mom’s TLC are the best way to handle the flu,” Fortenberry said.

He added if the child starts to have difficulty breathing, if they’re vomiting and aren’t able to keep fluids down, then it’s probably time to go to the emergency room.

But usually, Fortenberry said, the flu is a virus that gets better with time.

For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/flu.