Flu season is well underway in the U.S., and the virus has already claimed the lives of 13 children so far, according to recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among them is 6-year-old Allison Eaglespeaker, who died of the flu on Dec. 1
Eaglespeaker’s mother, Crystal White Shield, told WCVB5 that her daughter — who suffered from mild asthma — first showed signs of being sick just 48 hours before she died. “This illness hit her really hard and really fast,” Shield said. “I didn’t know I was going to lose my baby.” Eaglespeaker’s aunt reportedly set up a GoFundMe for her niece’s family, calling her their “beautiful baby girl.”
It seems shocking that someone could die that quickly from the flu, but it happens, Gina Posner, MD, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The flu can move super quickly in children and adults,” she says. “The flu can come and just overwhelm the system. That’s why we always tell people to get their flu shot.”
Having an underlying condition like asthma, being immunocompromised, and not getting a flu shot increase the chances that someone will have a serious, rapidly progressing case of the flu, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the John’s Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. In general, “to die that fast from flu likely means that it caused a primary viral pneumonia, which can interfere with oxygen function,” he says. But overall, “there’s a lot of mystery in understanding who dies from flu and who doesn’t die from flu,” Adalja says. “There may be some genetic variation in the immune system of some people that allows the flu to progress rapidly.”
If your child becomes sick with an upper respiratory infection, it can be tough to know whether it’s due to something like a cold, general cough, or the flu, Posner says. “Typically the fever is higher and more persistent with the flu, but not always,” she says.
If your child has any kind of underlying medical issue, Adalja recommends taking them to the doctor ASAP to be tested for the flu and potentially put on an anti-viral drug like Tamiflu, which can shorten the duration of the flu and lower the odds that your child will experience serious complications from the illness. “Also, if they don’t have any medical problems but are short of breath, have uncontrollable fever, are lethargic, or have a change in behavior, that should prompt you to see a doctor,” Adalja says.
You’ll also want to provide lots of comfort care, including pushing fluids, having your child rest, and giving them ibuprofen or acetaminophen if they’re uncomfortable and feverish, Posner says. “Keep an eye on them and call your doctor if they seem to get worse,” she adds.
Overall, experts stress that prevention is crucial. “The most important thing that anyone can do is the flu shot,” Posner says. “Even if the shot does not prevent your child from getting the flu, at least it can help prevent your child from dying from the flu.”
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