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Colds and Winter Flu Illness

January 14, 2011

In places that experience cold weather (like our region) viruses love to come out and play. It’s almost like they hibernate in the warm summer months. The bottom line is that children, especially under the age of five, are going to get sick.

Imagine watching a play and getting to know the different characters as the play progresses. In late October and November, a virus called Respiratory Syncycial Virus (RSV) first enters the stage.   It loves toddlers but really enjoys infecting infants since their immune status is weak. It causes cough and runny nose that do not let up. In fact, it may last 2- 3 weeks and can “land” your child (especially infants) in the hospital for a few days.   For the older kids 2-5 years it can cause cough and wheezing.   For the school age kids and adults it can cause laryngitis and a scratchy throat.

Then comes actor number two. Its name is Parainfluenza virus and it usually strikes right after Thanksgiving when germs are mixed up all around the country from our travels. In toddlers it typically causes croup which is characterizes by a barking seal like cough.  Fevers are usually low grade and the illness usually last 5-7 days. Parainfluenza likes to particularly pounce upon those individuals with asthma usually causing flare ups of wheezing. Parainfluenza likes to hang around through December until it is replaced with Influenza virus (the bad boys on the block) in January. There may be other viruses like Adenoviruses that will cause colds and occasional fever but the illness is short lived.

The plot really hits in January when Influenza bullies everybody.   This virus attacks young and old and usually last 1-2 weeks in duration.   Fever, body aches, cough, diarrhea and subsequent dehydration ensue. This illness frustrates everyone because of its high contagiousness and duration of illness. Don’t be surprised when your antibiotic you got from the doctor doesn’t help the symptoms-they simply don’t work.   Most doctors use them to prevent the most common dreaded consequence: bacterial pneumonia.

The key is understanding the illness, being patient, but keenly watching for worsening symptoms. Fluid intake and rest are vital but may require strong medications or hospitalization.

Fever is the most distressing. For the infants and toddlers, your bath tub is a key tool to manage fever. Making the water temperature to the point where you can’t feel warmth or coolness is ideal (tepid). Placing the child in the tub water with constant pouring of water down the chest and back for five minutes often does wonders. I often suggest alternating ibuprofen with acetaminophen every three hours when fever gets aggressive.

The Flu vaccine may not protect you especially if the strain that is present is not in the vaccine.  The 2010-2011 flu vaccine covers two strains of Influenza A (including H1N1) and one strain of Influenza B.  We simply have not been very good at predicting what strain will hit us in any given year.  

Influenza usually exit’s the stage by early March when most people have had exposure and the virus doesn’t have anyone left to attack.   It then hibernates again until the next Winter.   The early Spring usually brings on a variety of Adenoviruses, and Rhinoviruses that cause colds and “stomach viruses.” It’s not until the warm weather hits that we see a marked decline of viral illnesses.

Is there anything we can do to prevent or subdue the illness?  I often suggest for adults to attempt adding an extra hour of sleep to there schedule so we have the strength to take care of the little ones. Daycare for toddlers is a major breeding ground.   It’s a consequence when crowding children together. Infants and toddlers who are at home rarely get sick. 

But hey! we gotta’ work right? Besides, toddlers and older children do benefit from the socialization and education of daycare. There was a study done implying that zinc helps the mucous membranes from getting attacked by viruses.   Coldeze@ lozengers contain high amounts of zinc and may prevent viral illness for those old enough to “pop” one in everyday.  Because the Winter air is dry, attempt to moisten everything- your indoor air and the amount of water your body has can have dramatic effect.. Although the cost of heating is expensive, “air out” your home once a week by opening all windows for 5-10 minutes. Using HEPA air filters (Sears, Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy) for the bedrooms and family room are also helpful especially if anyone has allergies or asthma.

Before, closing, let me say this- I know the frustration of childhood illness. It’s frightening, exhausting and prevents or threatens the parent’s employment. However, whenever your child gets sick, the immunity is strengthened a notch. Over the years your child will have an immunity that’s pretty powerful. This is why many children over 6 years of age dramatically reduce their frequency and intensity of Winter viral infections. In a sense, the more illness in the younger ages, the better protection an older child has.

Don’t be shy about calling the doctor; our job is not only to help fight illness but also to allay anxiety.

…talk to ya next week!

Doctor “D.”

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