How to know if your child’s flu is becoming something more threatening

There have been a few recent cases of D.C.-area children dying from complications related to the flu. Most of the time, their body was weakened by the flu and another infection killed them because their system couldn’t fight it.

There are many medical conditions that make people more susceptible to this possibility.

“In children, the most common one is asthma,” said Dr. Bernhard “Bud” Wiedermann, physician of infectious diseases at Children’s National Hospital.

“But, in children and adults, there are other things, other kinds of lung disease, heart and kidney disease, immune suppression — for example, someone is a transplant organ recipient, or is getting cancer chemotherapy, metabolic disease like diabetes, neurological diseases, neuromuscular, and importantly, pregnancy and obesity are risk factors.”

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 46% of children hospitalized with the flu have at least one of the above underlying conditions putting them at risk.

That leaves 54%, who were previously healthy, develop flu severe enough to be hospitalized. That can happen in a couple different ways.

“Sometimes, it’s just a more severe virus infection in that individual for reasons we don’t understand,” Wiedermann said. “And, rarely the flu virus, which primarily affects the lungs, can also invade other organs in the body and cause problems. So the brain, for example, it can cause encephalitis, which can be a severe inflammation of the brain.”

The flu is also adept at causing bodies to have trouble defending against certain bacterial infections. It can make the body handle those infections differently. Sometimes, those infections can become severe and spread throughout the body.

Those infections can cause bacterial pneumonia or spread through the bloodstream, causing bloodstream infections, septic shock and many other life-threatening conditions.

So, how do you know if the flu is turning into a secondary bacterial infection?

“Typically, when someone develops the flu, they get fever, cough, congestion, body aches and generally feeling pretty miserable. That goes on for a few days, and things start to turn the corner and they get better,” Wiedermann said.

In addition, Wiedermann said, the hint or possible clue that one of these bacterial infections are taking hold is that after a couple days of feeling better, the sudden symptoms become worse again. This could be in the form of a fever coming back or becoming high, or other symptoms popping up.

One of the unique symptoms doctors notice is children refusing to walk, or for some reason based on the muscle distribution of the inflammation, walk on tiptoes.

Some of the other symptoms could include:

  • Extremely fast breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Ribs pulling in with each breath
  • Blueness to lips or face
  • Chest pain
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Not very alert or interactive
  • Not as interactive as usual

Wiedermann said if you see any of these signs, call your doctor sooner rather than later as these infections spread through quickly and become deadly if not treated.

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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