Chronic Illness • Mar 10, 2016

Sick Again! The challenges of the winter cold and flu season

There you are, wiping that little nose again. And again. One more time… Okay, last time. Or maybe your house is full of these phrases. “Cover your mouth,” “Please cover your mouth,” “You need to cover your mouth when you cough,” “I said cover your mouth!” Welcome to the club. The “my kid goes to daycare, preschool, grade school, Sunday school, play group (or their sibling dose) and I can’t get this crud out of my house” club. The winter cold and flu season is still in full swing.

Parents often ask about the constant stream of illness that hits their households during Jan./Feb./March, and understandably so. Some health care providers probably told you last week that your child had a virus, or maybe you told yourself that. But this week it is back. Can it possibly still be a virus? They just had it last week. Didn’t they? I even look at my own son and think “seriously, again?”

The secret fact that pediatricians know.

(I wrote that for dramatic effect. It isn’t really an actual secret)

The fact is that there are many viruses confirmed to be circulating right now, all at the same time. This phenomenon happens every year.

For example, here at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, our current list of viruses includes the following:

1) Influenza A (the flu)

2) RSV

3) Rhinovirus

4) Coronavirus

5) Human Metapneumovirus

6) Influenza B (the other flu)

7) Adenovirus

8) Parainfluenza (croup virus)

But there are more. These are the ones we can easily (though not cheaply) test for.

ALL of these specific viruses can, and usually do, show up as a head cold. Or what doctors like to call an “acute upper respiratory infection.” They can cause cough and chest issues, especially in children with asthma or infants where they can cause a condition called bronchiolitis.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say your child is unlucky enough to get every single one of these this year. If each virus takes two weeks to completely recover from, then your child will be at least a little sick for up to 16 weeks or about four months straight. That is not awesome.

Now let’s say they only get about half of these germs this year, which causes them to be sick for about two months straight. Chances are this is what you have experienced or will experience.

Why am I telling you this?

1.) So you know you aren’t crazy. You are right. Your kids have been sick continuously since Christmas.

2.) So you know that your doctor or other provider is also not making stuff up. Your child probably does just have a virus.

3.) So you don’t worry too much that your child has some rare immune deficiency; I get asked this specifically. Parents worry it is a sign of a weak immune system. The majority of the time the only real problem is these darn viruses. If your child has required repeated hospitalizations or long courses of antibiotics then you should discuss further with your physician.

What can you do about winter cold and flu?

1.) Get a flu vaccine for everyone in your family.

2.) Teach and practice good hand hygiene.

3.) Try to keep yourself healthy (sleep, exercise, don’t share eating utensils with your kids). When you are sick it is that much harder to handle sick kids.

4.) Watch for fevers greater than 100.4 for more than five days. Symptoms can include dehydration, severe pain (ears, chest, throat, etc.), difficulty breathing that doesn’t improve with clearing the nose, and more. If you have concerns about these or other symptoms call your provider. Sometimes a winter cold or flu can turn into something more.

5.) Know that doctors only have medicine to help treat the influenza virus. It can help your child feel better faster. You can discuss this option with your physician, but it does not work like an antibiotic. For every other virus the only true cure is time and TLC.

6.) Cleaning frequently touched surfaces can help prevent the spread between family members. It won’t prevent them from bringing home a new virus.