What Every Parent Should Know About Emergency Departments During Flu Season

This year, thousands of people are packing their local emergency department during flu season. As the region’s only pediatric-dedicated facility, the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital is seeing an extremely high number of patients, from infants to teens. Our physicians and staff understand how anxious and scared parents and children can get when faced with a trip to the emergency department. They offer the following information and tips for parents coming to the emergency department during the busy flu season:

  • Be prepared to see a full lobby, including people seated in chairs down hallways and in additional areas throughout the department. Typically, the department gets busier as the day progresses. CHOC has added staff to help manage wait times.
  • Leave siblings and other family members at home, if possible. This will help ease crowding, but more importantly, keeps well children from being exposed to sick ones. Also, parents’ attention should be focused on their ill or injured children.
  • Patients are seen based on how sick or injured they are, not on the order they arrived in the emergency department. Please keep in mind there are patients who arrive in ambulances – admitted in an area beyond your view. Our staff must treat the sickest first. If you’ve been waiting and are concerned your child’s condition is getting worse, please ask a nurse to reassess her.
  • Hold off on giving food or drink to your child until she’s been seen by the doctor. A full stomach can delay procedures and the use of sedatives.
  • There are nurses and emergency medical technicians (EMT) who work in the lobby and have different roles. Nurses, dressed in maroon scrubs, help screen and assess patients; some will assist with lab work or X-rays. EMTs, dressed in tan scrubs, can only take vitals and measure height and weight. EMTs will notify the nurses in the lobby of any changes they observe in patients’ conditions.
  • Don’t expect a prescription for antibiotics, which aren’t always the answer. Antibiotics can only treat infections caused by bacteria. Cold illness caused by viruses can’t be cured with an antibiotic.
  • Try to stay calm. Children can pick up on their parents’ fear and anxiety. Take deep breaths for your and your child’s sake.
Download a checklist of what to bring to the emergency department

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Should My Kids Get the Flu Shot This Year?

Many parents have expressed concern over the last few months that this year’s influenza vaccine may be less effective than in years past and wondering, “Should my kids get the flu shot this year?” These concerns stem from data released after Australia’s flu season, where recent reports indicated low effectiveness of the vaccine.

“We’re using the same vaccine here in the United States, so people think it won’t be effective,” says Dr. Jasjit Singh, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director of infection prevention and control at CHOC Children’s.

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Dr. Jasjit Singh, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director of infection prevention and control at CHOC Children’s., addresses parents’ annual concerns over, “Should my kids get the flu shot this year?”

These doubts are misguided, says Singh. Although reports show Australia’s vaccine was only 10 percent effective, that data was specifically looking at the H3N2 strain that had dominated the southern hemisphere this year, she says. Effectiveness against the same strain in the US has been as high as 30-40 percent, and even higher against other strains of influenza in the past.

“We can’t take that one statistic and apply it to all strains of the flu in the US this season,” Singh says.

It’s important for parents to remember that the although the vaccine helps prevent children and adults from getting the flu, physicians are especially concerned with preventing influenza-related hospitalizations or even death.

“People forget that children and adults can die from influenza. So far in the U.S. there have been nine pediatric flu-related deaths this season,” Singh says.

Since the 2004-2005 flu season, flu-related deaths in children have ranged from 37 to 171 each season, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics examined vaccine effectiveness in 291 pediatric influenza-associated pediatric deaths from 2010-2014. Vaccine effectiveness was 51 percent in children with high-risk conditions, compared to 65 percent in children without high-risk conditions.

“This shows that many of our deaths are in otherwise healthy children,” Singh says.

Although it’s best to get vaccinated early in the season, it’s better to be vaccinated later in the winter than not at all.

“Very often, people get vaccinated because someone they know has the flu. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so if your child has been exposed to the flu in that time period, they can still get sick,” she says.

Parents should remember that children cannot get from the flu from getting a flu shot.

“The vaccine is not a live vaccine, so it’s impossible to get the flu from getting a flu shot,” Singh says. “the vaccine prevents influenza virus, but during winter months there are many other viruses that cause colds and respiratory viruses, that are usually milder than the flu.”

Those who decline a flu shot because they “never get the flu” still need to be vaccinated, she adds.

“It’s important to remember that some people may have minimal symptoms, but can still pass the virus to others who may be vulnerable to more severe disease.”

The single best way to protect your child from the flu is by getting them vaccinated each year. In addition to receiving an annual influenza vaccine, there are other things parents and caregivers can do to help prevent the flu. Use proper hand-washing techniques, use respiratory etiquette, and stay home from work or school if you are sick with the flu, to prevent spreading it to others.

Download your immunization guide

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When Do I Take My Child to the Emergency Department?

Sometimes, deciding to take a child to the emergency department (ED) isn’t a clear-cut choice for parents.

In podcast No. 46, Amy Waunch, a trauma program manager at the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department, helps clarify this question.

When considering an ED trip, Amy says parents should look for the ABCDs: an airway blockage; noisy high-pitched breathing; circulation problems, such as blood loss and extreme dehydration; or sudden disability, such as seizures or loss of consciousness.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about the ABCD concept, as well as other elements of an ED visit:

  • common reasons for an ED trip;
  • what ailments can wait until the pediatrician’s office opens;
  • what to expect at the ED; and
  • what to bring to the ED – and what to leave at home.