Let me just go ahead and warn you: URI (upper respiratory infection) season is upon us.
It’s the dreaded phrase we moms hate to hear in the pediatrician’s office: “It’s a viral infection.”
Why hasn’t anyone funded a cure to the common cold yet?
Why do we have to let our children snot, sneeze, and simmer with low grade fever for days on end?
Can’t you just give my child a prescription for [insert any antibiotic name here] and we get on with our lives?
The flu and its extended family members are notorious for extended school absences, sniffling work colleagues, and disgusting playground equipment. I don’t want you to mistake me for a germ-a-phobe; my kids have played in the Chick-fil-A play place in the winter on more than one occasion. But let’s break down the major players so that we can make it through these next few months.
Influenza :: The Patriarch, The Mob Boss, The Devil’s Right Hand
Influenza, or the flu, is a viral infection that causes a sudden onset of fever, cough, sore throat, body or muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue (or feeling tired). It can last anywhere from a few days up to two weeks; symptoms can be mild or very severe. Complications of the flu, such as dehydration or difficulty breathing, can land a child in the hospital. A medication called Tamiflu is available by prescription but it does NOT cure the flu. It might shorten the duration of symptoms if given within 24 hours of diagnosis or exposure. Tamiflu itself has several side effects, however, so not every healthcare provider is ready to put pen to paper and give you enough Tamiflu for your whole house. Because it’s a virus, there is no antibiotic that can kill the flu. The flu vaccine can prevent you and your loved ones from getting the flu altogether, but if you happen to get the flu after you’ve received the vaccine, it is proven to be significantly less severe and of a shorter duration than those who didn’t receive the vaccine at all.
Last year, during flu season 2017-2018, there were 80,000 people who DIED from the flu and its complications (see this New York Times article). That’s a stunning number, ya’ll. While most of these deaths were elderly persons, a whopping 180 children and teenagers died from influenza infections. That’s the highest death rate for the flu among pediatrics in the past four years.
Rhinovirus :: The Common Cold, The Cousin who Just. Won’t. Stop. Talking.
Rhinovirus is a very common group of viral illnesses that are the most likely cause of your cold. Distinguishing features include: slower onset (unlike the slap in the face that is the flu) over 2-3 days, mild, low grade fever, cough and congestion, sore throat and generally feeling unwell. There is no cure for the cold, no vaccination (can someone get on that project, please?) to prevent it or lessen its severity, and there aren’t even great medicines to help you through the symptoms. Rhinoviruses can last several days and up to 2-3 weeks. The common cold is also known by its secondary infections and complications such as ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia, or strep throat. Good news: if your kid gets a bacterial ear infection or a nasty case of strep throat in addition to her rhinovirus, that CAN be treated with an antibiotic. Hallelujah!
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) :: The Terrible Two Year Old who No One Disciplines
RSV is a virus (see a trend here?) that mostly is seen in children less than five years old. An infant almost always shows symptoms of infection with RSV, whereas an adult with an RSV infection is rarely ill. This, Friends, is why we insist that you don’t go around kissing the babies this winter. RSV can be particularly dangerous to very young children, children that don’t have working immune systems, or premature infants. More often than not, RSV can cause difficulty breathing that can land a baby in the hospital, requiring oxygen support, IV fluids, and sometimes even a stay in the intensive care unit. And that’s not a place a parent wants to be.
There are dozens of viruses that cause illnesses during the winter months. And, honestly, the particular name of the virus is not important: rhinovirus, enterovirus, coronavirus . . . they’re all about the same. (Except that influenza. Don’t underestimate that one.) So how do we avoid them all, short of locking our families in the house for the next six months and halting all human contact?
- Wash your hands. For real. Wash your kids’ hands, wash your hands, tell other people in the public bathrooms to wash their hands. Ask the daycare worker if she’s washed her hands in the past 30 minutes. Request that Grandma wash her hands before holding your toddler. Carry antibacterial hand wipes, hand sanitizer, a bar of soap. It has been proven over and over again that hand washing is the #1 best way to prevent illnesses from spreading.
- Stay home if you are, or your child is, sick. Staying home is not only important in preventing the spread to others, but also allows you or your child time to rest and let the immune system do its job: fight. If your child is at school all day, around others, trying to concentrate on school work, going outside at recess . . . how will that immune system have any power to fight off the virus? A healthcare provider’s suggestion to REST is not a joke; the body needs extra energy to fend off the attack of the virus.
- Don’t share things. Don’t share food, drinks, utensils, towels. Don’t share hugs and kisses. Granted, it’s really hard not to kiss on your chunky little 10 month old that just started saying “Mama” . . . but you better make sure you don’t have even the slightest hint of a sore throat. Please, just don’t kiss the babies!!
- Make good nutrition and hydration a priority. We all want to keep our families healthy year-round, and it’s especially important during URI seasons. A body that is malnourished or dehydrated is at higher risk for catching a viral illness and takes much longer to recover. Good nutrition and hydration are like the cornerstone to a building: the rest of the structure can’t stand up to the elements if the cornerstone is weak.
Stand strong, Mama! Support each other (from a distance) when little ones come down with a virus. Lean on your family for help when YOU come down with a virus. We will make it through the winter!