The flu season is already here. It usually hits in December, but health officials are already seeing higher cases of the flu now and are expecting to see many more in the coming weeks. Doctors are urging parents to get themselves and their children vaccinated as soon as possible.
They anticipate having a big challenge ahead of them with what they are calling a “tripledemic” or “triple threat” – influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Dr. Anastasia Williams, M.D., a pediatrician at the San Fernando Community Health Center says that there are multiple reasons why this flu season could be more intense, including peoples’ immune systems possibly not being as prepared as in years’ past.
The safety precautions taken throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with mandates to wear masks and practice social distancing also protected people from respiratory illnesses, like the flu.
Although COVID-19 safety precautions helped to prevent people from catching respiratory illnesses, they also prevented people from building up their immune systems. With less people wearing masks now and more coming into closer contact, Williams said that there will be a rise in illnesses.
She repeats the chorus of doctorly advice: get vaccinated as soon as possible and be especially concerned for your young children.
“I know that children are supposed to get out there and play, touch, explore … it’s an important part of their development,” Williams said. “And one of the best things we can do is provide them with a vaccine that will protect them while they’re getting exposed.”
Williams also said that there is still some hesitation and concern about vaccines and wants to assure parents that they are beneficial to their child’s health.
“In my 25 years of practicing medicine, I do not know anyone, particularly any child, who has died from the flu vaccine. I don’t know any person who has died from the COVID vaccine. Not one,” Williams said. “I know several families who have lost children from the flu. I know many children who have been hospitalized because of the flu … I think it’s clear that the benefits of being vaccinated clearly outweigh the risks of not being vaccinated.”
Each of the three respiratory illnesses share similar symptoms — fever, cough, headache, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, shortness of breath and diarrhea. However, doctors are bracing themselves for a more intense season with a stronger, more virulent strain of the flu. Williams explained that the flu starts in the East before moving to the West. By observing the flu strain early on, medical experts can prepare a flu vaccine that combats that strain. With Australia having its worst flu season in five years, it signals a severe flu season when it inevitably comes to the United States.
“[The flu strain] is stronger, it can do more damage,” Williams said. “We all have got to be prepared. We just got through COVID; we don’t need another deadly pandemic.”
RSV on the Rise is a Big Risk to Infants and Elderly
RSV is one of the bigger risks in the upcoming winter surge. Unlike the other two viruses, there is no vaccine for RSV. Although RSV cases tend to be mild for older children and adults, they can become severe for infants and the elderly.
Williams said that RSV in infants causes a buildup of inflammation, phlegm and mucus that their bodies are not big enough to handle. These problems could lead to bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways of the lung.
“Right now, RSV is a big issue for me among my infants that have respiratory illnesses, [more] than COVID is,” Williams said. “I see more infants struggling because their noses are so stuffy and all the mucus and the phlegm and they’re fussy and they can’t feed well. They make it through, but they require some extra support.”
If your child does get the flu and their symptoms don’t improve over the next few days, Williams has advice for parents on where to go to get the most appropriate care.
If your child has a fever for more than three days, they have difficulty catching their breath or their cold lasts more than a week, it is best to seek care from your child’s pediatrician or a family doctor. The same advice goes for parents of children with chronic medical conditions, as Williams said it’s best to go to someone who knows your child. If the child stops breathing and they’re gasping for air, call 911.
For infants, Williams said that it’s vital that they stay hydrated. The infant should be able to wet their diaper every eight to 10 hours. If they can’t, then it’s a sign the infant is dehydrated and you should call your doctor. If the infant is crying nonstop, called inconsolable irritability, call your doctor or go to urgent care.
For babies with RSV, Williams advised using a humidifier to keep the air moist and to use a bulb to suction the mucus out of their nose with normal saline, especially before feeding them. If their symptoms continue to worsen, seek care from the child’s pediatrician or go to urgent care.
“If you are at increased risk for infection or illness, such as a newborn baby or if you have chronic illness that affects your immune system, then you should still avoid being in crowded indoor spaces and you should wear masks when you can,” Williams said. “I think the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine are important ways for us to protect ourselves from these infections that can make us very ill and sometimes even be deadly.”