Winter is a period when your little ones may come home sneezy and sniffly, but how do you know if it's a cold or a flu? And how do you prevent and treat either illness? Bernice Mulligan reports
Coping with colds and fl u AS a parent you want to do everything you can to protect your child from outside ills. However, as Dr Ronan Boland, vicepresident of the Irish Medical Organisation and full-time GP in Cork City, explains, when it comes to colds and flu there is only a limited amount you can do.
" Colds and flu are viruses which are spread by droplets, ie through coughing and sneezing. So, in terms of prevention, it is difficult especially when you are talking about children who are in creche or primary school."
However, he says basic hygiene measures should be reinforced in your children. " Teach them the common-sense measures of covering one's mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and regularly washing hands. Then there's the ' Catch it, bin it, kill it' phrase. It was largely used in relation to swine flu but it also applies to normal flu and the common cold and can be taught to children."
Toddlers and school-going children are very likely to pick up colds and flu (which are part of a family of illnesses known as upper respiratory infections) because they tend to be out and about a lot, attending playschool or primary school, and are therefore more exposed to viruses.
The difference between a cold and a flu
According to Boland, what people call a flu is more typically the common cold.
" The symptoms of a cold include a runny nose, runny eyes, green discharge from the nose and some coughing. Although the child might be a little bit below par, they are usually not particularly unwell. They may still be eating normally and running around playing."
If this is the case, there is really no need to do very much, he says, as the cold will run its course in about three to five days.
Flu, on the other hand, is a " very different animal", says Boland. " Persons with flu tend to have a temperature of over 101° F ( 38.5– 39° C), as well as pains and aches, loss of appetite and a general feeling of being unwell."
But can flu be dangerous for children? " Influenza can be dangerous for anybody, but it is more dangerous for somebody who has a concurrent illness such as a respiratory disease, a cardiac or neurological condition, or who is immunocompromised, for example somebody on chemotherapy. Swine flu was just a different variation of flu, and worldwide a significant proportion of the fatalities were in children. So it can happen," explains Boland.
This year's seasonal flu vaccine also contains protection against the H1N1 virus ( swine flu) and the groups it targets have been expanded to incorporate pregnant women and those up to six week post-partum with no long-term health conditions, and children with any condition that can compromise respiratory function, especially those attending special schools/day centres.
However, in the main healthy children don't need to get the flu vaccine, he says.
" Generally children don't require flu vaccine unless they have other illnesses that require ongoing treatment. I would advise parents to check out the HSE website
www. immunisation. ie if they need clarification on the groups recommended for seasonal flu vaccination."
Use your discretion
Boland says that for the vast majority of people, including children, flu is a selflimiting illness which doesn't require medical intervention or treatment. " The main thing is temperature management, so that means making sure the patient drinks plenty of fluids, has lots of rest and takes paracetamol if there is pain or a headache involved. A flu will usually lasts three to five days and doesn't require the doctor ordinarily."
But are these ever situations where a child with cold or flu needs to be brought to the doctor? " I'm a great believer in parents exercising their discretion, so if a parent has a hunch, they're more likely going to be right than wrong. If they have a sixth sense that something is not right, they should act on that," he says.
" Most GPs are of the view that if mother or father is concerned that is sufficient reason for them to be in the surgery with their child. If in doubt, and if you think your child is deteriorating, you should make contact."
Boland also notes that if your child is coughing over a period of weeks ( ie it hasn't cleared up after three to five days like in most cases of colds and flu) and if it tends to be nocturnal, this could signal undiagnosed asthma.
" Colds and flu get better quickly. If coughing occurs at night over a long period, asthma has to be considered, and you will need to bring your child to your GP to have it diagnosed or ruled out."
Ultimately, says Boland, the main thing for parents to remember is that these infections are part and parcel of childhood, and in a lot of cases they just need a little bit of TLC!
Mother & Babies