The COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed the years 2020 and 2021, resulting in unprecedented lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing measures. Contrary to expectations, the 2022 to 2023 winter marked a record surge in respiratory diseases — a significant rise in COVID-19 cases, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) was reported, particularly affecting children.
The tax on healthcare was immense with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting more than 100 pediatric flu deaths for the season, a majority of whom were unvaccinated. The RSV cases recorded by the CDC also were worrisome.
The 'tripledemic', as it came to be known, was deemed the worst cold and flu season on record, according to Dr. Wendy Hasson, a representative for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) based in Portland, Oregon. As an outcome of the increased illness, common over-the-counter medications like children's Tylenol and Motrin plunged into shortage.
Despite the harshness of the previous season, there is hope and some effective strategies for a less severe season this winter. Dr. Hasson urges caution but also admits that the future is uncertain. However, there are proven methods for families to stay safe during the cold and flu season.
1. Set Up Defenses with Flu Shots for the Entire Family
Flu season kicks off in early fall, peaking in December, January, and February. But an early flu shot is a smart move. Jonathan Miller, M.D., the chief of primary care at Nemours Children's Health, informs us that our bodies require about two weeks to start producing antibodies that guard against the influenza virus, and a month for full-fledged protection to develop.
The flu vaccine is a critical measure, not only to keep individuals from contracting and spreading the flu but also to guard against severe flu complications. It is particularly vital for children below the age of 5, among which those under 2 are at the highest risk, according to the CDC.
This year's flu vaccine is already available and recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months. If your baby is younger than 6 months, it is critically important to ensure everyone else in your family gets vaccinated, Dr. Miller advises. Doing so creates a 'ring of protection' around the baby who cannot receive the vaccine yet.
2. Seek RSV Immunization for Older Adults and Expecting Mothers
Both infants and older adults are susceptible to complications resulting from RSV. This sparked the FDA's approval of new RSV vaccines for pregnant women (providing protection to both mothers and their newborns) and adults above the age of 60.
Dr. Miller urges older adults to not only get vaccinated for their own safety, but also to curtail the spread of RSV within their families.
3. Remain Current with COVID Shots
In September, the CDC approved an improved COVID-19 vaccine. Like the yearly adapting flu shot, this booster protects against the latest variants causing illness. The updated vaccine is recommended for those who haven't received a COVID-19 jab in the past two months.
Even if a family member has contracted COVID before, more than once perhaps, they should still ensure that their vaccines are updated, adds Michael Chang, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist with UTHealth Houston and Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital. Staying immunized significantly lowers the risk of severe illness and hospitalization, he affirms.
4. Consult the Pediatrician about the New RSV Antibody
A new drug to watch is Beyfortus. It's a pioneering RSV antibody approved by the FDA in July 2023. Intended for infants undergoing their first RSV season (usually beginning in fall) or children up to the age of 2 at a higher risk of contracting the virus, including premature babies or those with lung conditions.
Being a monoclonal antibody rather than a vaccine, Beyfortus is technically a form of immunization delivered via a shot, as explained by Dr. Chang. These are lab-produced proteins that simulate the body's natural immune defenses.
5. Maintain Good Hand Hygiene Practices — for all
For children in school or daycare, introduce a habit of washing hands immediately upon returning home, especially if there's a young infant in the family, suggests Dr. Hasson. Regular hand washing can help slow down the transmission of flu, RSV, and COVID, which all spread through droplets produced by coughing and sneezing.
Teaching children hand washing the right way is crucial. Ideally, hands should be rubbed with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds, lifting germs off the skin, according to the CDC. The friction or rubbing action is important.
6. Encourage Hand Sanitizer Use
There's a reason why hand sanitizers run out of stock briskly during the cold and flu season. Hand sanitizers are potent killers of respiratory viruses. However, proper use is to apply to the fingertips and not the palms, emphasizes Dr. Chang. The idea is that you more often touch your face, mouth, and eyes with your fingertips. Always choose a sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol for best results.
7. Stock Up on Fever Reducers
Last year's tripledemic led to a shortage of children's acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin). That's why it's wise to ensure you have these fever reducers already purchased and stocked in your medicine cabinet, Dr. Chang suggests. But remember not to stockpile and exacerbate supply issues.
8. Learn to say 'No'
Attending every toddler birthday party or crowded indoor event like aquariums and gyms isn't necessary. Dr. Hasson recommends parents of young infants to feel empowered to decline these invitations during the cough and cold season, especially if their infant is under 6 months of age as they're most at risk of falling seriously sick with these cold viruses.
While it can be difficult to say 'no', your child's health should always be prioritized.