What Happens When You Take A Kid To The ER For The Flu? Because You Want To Be Prepared

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This weekend, my husband and I woke to the sound of our toddler vomiting. I ran into her room, quickly cleaned her off, and assessed her symptoms. After all, flu season was upon us and I knew there were some very specific signs to look for, like a fever, chills, and headache. Claire was sweating profusely, wouldn't respond to our questions, and lifted her limbs with a weakness that freaked me out. We eventually landed in the ER and if you're curious what that looks like, then here's what happens when you take a kid to the ER for the flu. Honestly, it's worth being prepared this time of year.

The first order of business is simple — patience. “Be prepared to wait for hours in the ER waiting room," Dr. S. Daniel Ganjian, pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Romper. "Since this is one of the worst flu seasons this winter, the emergency rooms are full."

When we realized Claire's symptoms were probably worth a visit to the doctor given their likeness to those associated with influenza, we drove to our local urgent care. Plus, she wasn't responding to us and couldn't stay awake despite us urging her to sit up or "look at our eyes," so it was hard to gauge her status. It was Sunday and our primary care provider wasn't in office, so we thought urgent care might be a good option for having her symptoms quickly assessed. But after a few quick checks — heartbeat, temperature, reflexes — and questions, the doctor said she would prefer we take her to our local children's hospital. Not only did they not swab for influenza at that particular location, but she said Claire's age made it hard to fully assess her symptoms. In other words, a sick 2-year-old child doesn't readily say, "Hey, this hurts right here." Accuracy in diagnosis, therefore, is limited without access to proper testing. When she said, "If it was my little one, I would go," that was all we needed to hear.

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Courtesy Of Caroline Shannon-Karasik

Once in the emergency room, our wait was short, but as Ganjian mentioned, the nurse assured us that wasn't typically the case. In fact, at one point during our visit, my husband stepped out of the room for a bottle of water and said the waiting room was packed. Every child was either clinging to a parent, holding a bag in the event they became sick, and/or wearing a mask.

Ganjian says once you are seen, the doctor will check your child's oxygen level, listen to their lungs, "and check the rest of the body to make sure he/she does not have anything more serious like pneumonia, sinusitis, or meningitis."

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Which was exactly the case for us. Claire's nurses and doctors were so thorough, triple checking on the events and symptoms that led up to her becoming sick, moving her head and limbs to check for various conditions, and talking to her in quiet, measured voices that made her feel reassured.

"If necessary, the doctor will also administer a flu test, X-ray, and blood work," Ganjian says. Claire was swabbed for influenza and given Zofran, an anti-nausea medicine that would, fingers crossed, quell her nausea enough that we could test her ability to keep down fluids.

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About 30 minutes passed before our baby turned to us and said, "Orange juice?" It was 1:30 p.m. and the first string of words she had said all morning. Plus, she wanted orange juice! Who knew a mama could be so excited about her daughter wanting to drink something?

Claire tolerated small sips of juice, then fell asleep for two hours. In the meantime, her influenza test came back negative, meaning she had the stomach flu, which is different from influenza — a respiratory illness — in that it can be caused by any number viruses, bacteria, and parasites that affect that gastrointestinal system, noted the website for Tamiflu. The symptoms can look similar, but the two are actually unrelated. The doctor assured us that Claire's state was most likely the result of one of the stomach flu's most common symptoms in children — dehydration. That meant with a bit more monitoring in the hospital and barring any recurring vomiting or fever — which could point at another problem, like a urinary tract infection — we could go home.

"Depending on the results of all the aforementioned steps, the ER can say to just get plenty of rest, fluids, Tylenol, nasal saline, Tamiflu, antibiotics, or even IV fluids if your child is dehydrated," Ganjian says. "Almost all patients will get to go home, but some might have to stay longer in the hospital for more aggressive treatment.”

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Our treatment for Claire required administering another dose of Zofran at home and ensuring that she rested the hell out of the day, while sipping as much fluid as she could tolerate. When she ate a banana, I almost jumped up and down with excitement.

Courtesy Of Caroline Shannon-Karasik

After it was all said and done, I was grateful we took the steps we did to rule out something more serious. The truth is, I did initially second guess the situation before we headed out the door: Was I overreacting? Should we just wait it out?

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But from the doctor at urgent care to the emergency room staff to Claire's general practitioner at a follow up visit today, they all said the same thing — this flu stuff is no joke.

And as I watched my now healthy toddler giggling with her dad today and felt a deep sense of relief, I couldn't agree more.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.  

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