By Matt Sloane
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
Dec. 17, 2014 -- Flu season is ramping up, according to the CDC, which is reporting widespread flu activity in 14 states, including much of the U.S. mid-Atlantic region and several Southern states.
In many states, flu is having a big impact on schoolchildren. In at least two counties in the South, entire school systems are beginning the holiday break early because of an increase in kids sick with flu-like symptoms.
"Due to unforeseen circumstances, we will operate on an early release schedule Wednesday, December 17th," says the notice posted on the Polk County, GA, school district's web site. The notice says school will remain closed until after the winter break because more and more students are out sick.
"I had a lot of people tell me on Monday that they just were not going to be able to send their kids to school later in the week, because they didn't want their kids sick all the way through the Christmas vacation," Polk County Superintendent William Hunter, PhD, told Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA.
Out of the district's 7,800 students, 1,300 of them were out sick Monday, along with 78 of the district's 500 teachers, he said. "The decision was pretty easy to make."
Similarly, the Cherokee County school district in western North Carolina has announced it will shut down all schools by Thursday -- 2 days earlier than planned -- for winter break.
There are various reports from Chicago to Ohio to Georgia of individual schools shutting down as well, and warnings going out to parents about keeping kids home if they show symptoms of illness.
One school district in suburban Atlanta even sent a letter to parents asking them to simply keep sick children home from school, and not to try and cover up their kids' fever symptoms by giving them fever-reducing drugs.
Less-Effective Flu Vaccine
It's not clear whether the flu is solely to blame for the uptick in illnesses.
"I'm seeing a lot of strep, I'm seeing RSV, conjunctivitis, ear infections, and croup," says Atlanta-area pediatrician Jennifer Shu. "There are a lot of kids missing a lot of school these days."
Earlier this month, the CDC said some of this year's main flu strains had "drifted" from the strains included in the flu vaccine, meaning the vaccine may not be as effective as they'd hoped.
"The flu virus can be unpredictable, and what we've seen so far this year is concerning," says CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH.
Frieden says this year's dominant flu strain is H3N2, a subtype of the flu virus that tends to be more serious. "We know that in seasons where H3 viruses dominate, we tend to have worse flu years, including more hospitalizations and deaths from influenza."
Because we're seeing a season with less-effective vaccine, Frieden says it's key to rely on the basics, including:
- Wash your hands.
- Cover your cough.
- Stay home from work or school whenever you think you might be sick.
"Fever is the big sign usually for flu, and the sudden onset," Shu says. "For the flu patients, parents have to drag them out of bed to come to the office, and they're lying down on the exam table."
With colds, she says, patients are more talkative, and up and walking around.
But strep often doesn't come with cold symptoms.
"Sore throat, headaches, stomachache, vomiting, sometimes fever, but runny noses and cough are not common with strep," Shu says.
Bottom line, she says: If your child is sick, have them stay home.
"Keep them home until they've been fever-free for 24 hours, or until they're alert enough to be able to sit through a full day of school without needing to rest or cough a ton," she says. "They're not going to be able to concentrate if they're feeling crummy and coughing all the time anyway."
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