When cold and flu season rolls around, parents spend anxious moments trying to decipher symptoms and decide whether — or when — to take a sick kid to the doctor.
Such decisions are particularly tricky this winter. The 2012-13 season is a heavy one for influenza. Other illnesses, from strep throat to colds and norovirus, are adding to the misery.
“It's a scary flu season,” said Dr. Jessica Snowden, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
The best advice, experts say, is to take a child to the doctor if he shows flu symptoms.
Influenza typically comes with fever, headache, sore throat and respiratory symptoms, including cough and runny nose, Snowden said.
But muscle and aches are a hallmark of the flu, distinguishing it from the common cold.
“You feel like you've been run over,” she said. “You're going to notice that your child seems much sicker than they normally are.”
Saturday's death of a 2-year-old Lancaster County boy from influenza, the second flu-related fatality in Nebraska this season, serves as a reminder that such illnesses can be serious.
With influenza, the earlier the diagnosis, the better. Doctors can start antiviral drugs that lessen the illness's duration, said Dr. Jennifer Jenson, a pediatrician with Alegent Creighton Clinic in Council Bluffs.
But those work best if started within 48 hours of the flu's onset.
Snowden said a diagnosis also allows doctors to start preventive treatment for a child's family members and close contacts.
“There are lots of reasons to get diagnosed if you think your child” has influenza, she said.
Strep throat, on the other hand, is characterized by fever, sore throat and headache, Snowden said.
It typically doesn't include the body aches that characterize influenza.
Most cases coming in now, Jenson said, are either strep or flu. Strep throat is treated with antibiotics.
Doctors and other public health officials also are encouraging people to do what they can to prevent flu, starting with vaccination.
“It's certainly not too late to get vaccinated,” Snowden said. “We're not sure we're at the peak of the flu season yet.”
Flu activity continues to be widespread across Nebraska and Iowa.
Surveillance data shows much more flu circulating now than at this time last year.
In the United States, flu season typically peaks in January or February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it can occur as early as October or as late as May.
Snowden said children under the age of 5, including those who are otherwise healthy, are particularly at risk.
Indeed, the Lancaster County boy who died earlier this month had no underlying health conditions, according to state health officials.
The state's first flu-related death this season was a man in his 60s, also from Lancaster County. Neither had been immunized against the flu.
Some seem to be heeding the advice.
More than 10 people got vaccinations Tuesday at the Kohll's Pharmacy & Homecare near 84th Street and West Center Road. Marty Feltner, Kohll's vaccination coordinator, said he expected about that many Wednesday.
Many are elderly people who normally get immunized but haven't gotten a shot yet this year, he said.
They're hearing about the prevalence of flu and about the recent deaths and making the trip, he said.
“Normally, we do hardly any after the holidays,” he said. “To have 10 to 15 individuals come into this location is more than what we'd usually see.”
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