When Erika Westmoreland’s daughter Hadley said she couldn’t walk after Westmoreland picked her up from choir practice Monday afternoon, the 48-year-old mother of four thought maybe she was being a little dramatic. But that changed when she saw her daughter crawl to the bathroom.
“She literally couldn’t move,” Westmoreland remembers.
The 8-year-old had battled a second bout with the flu in just over a month, after the family had waited for a flu vaccine to become available at their pediatrician’s office. At first, the symptoms seemed similar to the first infection, but after a few days, Hadley started feeling a tightness in her legs that prevented her from standing or walking.
This lesser known symptom of a flu infection is caused by a condition called acute viral myositis, an inflammation of the muscles that causes them to feel extremely tense, making movement painful.
Usually, the condition occurs among patients who undergo intense physical stress in preparation for an athletic competition, for example, but it is also a fairly common side effect of an infection with Influenza B, a flu strain that is becoming more common at this point of the flu season.
According to Dr. Kali Broussard, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist with Our Lady of Lourdes Health System, roughly 20% of children infected with Influenza B experience some level of muscle inflammation.
While most cases aren’t harmful to children’s health in the long run if treated appropriately, very severe cases can lead to kidney failure, which is why it’s important for parents to take precautionary measures and seek treatment immediately when they notice their children experiencing those symptoms.
“At the first sign of illness, when the fever starts, that’s when [parents] should be pushing hydration,” Broussard said, noting the minimum level of hydration to help prevent inflammation is one ounce per two pounds of body weight per day. Inflammation and fever-reducing medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help make children feel more comfortable, making it easier for them to consume the recommended dose of fluids.
For the proper dose, Broussard urges parents to contact their pediatrician, as dosing recommendations on the packaging of the medication often underdose and might not provide the appropriate level of relief.
In cases like Hadley’s, where symptoms are severe, Broussard said parents should contact their pediatrician or seek out medical care at a hospital, where staff can provide fluids intravenously and monitor enzyme levels in the child’s blood to ensure the inflammation goes down before it can cause damage to the kidneys.
Tamiflu can also help reduce symptoms, including muscle inflammation, and is recommended for babies and children older than 2 weeks.
But the most important thing parents can do to protect their children is to get them vaccinated, Broussard said. South Louisiana, she noted, has the highest rates of flu infections in the state, making it more likely for children here to experience these symptoms.
“That is, unfortunately, a testament to our low flu vaccine uptake,” Broussard said. “That’s why we’re hearing more about it is because more of our kids are sick than everywhere else.”
While a flu shot does not fully protect against infection, it helps reduce the severity of the illness, making it less likely for vaccinated children to experience the debilitating symptoms Hadley had to endure.
When Stephanie Mire’s daughter was unable to walk after a flu infection, she panicked. “My husband and I made eye contact across the living room, like alright, this is not normal. Is it a brain tumor?” Mire remembers the fear she felt at the time.
Her daughter Reese recovered after being treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids at the emergency room, but the incident left a lasting impression on Mire. While she said flu shots weren’t usually a part of her family’s vaccination routine, she’s considering them now.
“It’s definitely a conversation I’ll be having with her pediatrician,” Mire said.
Flu shots, lots of hydration, as well as anti-viral and anti-inflammatory medications can help prevent and lessen some of the worst symptoms, Broussard said. In addition, she advised parents not to send their children back to school until the infection has run its full course, to prevent spreading the virus.
Although most children recover well, the dangers of the flu should not be underestimated, Broussard warned. During last year’s flu season, 106 children and adolescents died of the flu, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control. “Influenza is not a benign infection, right? Kids do die of influenza,” she said. “Which is kind of wild, considering we have a perfectly good way to prevent it.”