Here's something we don't usually associate with children and flu season: stroke. But a September 2015 study published in Neurology found that kids might be at a higher risk of having a stroke after battling a cold or the flu, especially if they're poorly vaccinated.
Researchers reviewed medical charts and interviewed parents of 355 children who had a stroke and 354 children who were stroke-free. 18 percent of the children who had suffered from stroke had a cold or the flu the week before. But the increased risk appears to be temporary, lasting only for about a week after a child's been sick.
The researchers also found that children who had only some or none of their routine vaccinations were seven times more likely to have a stroke than kids who had most or all of their vaccinations.
But before you start panicking any time your child has a fever or runny nose, you need to know that strokes are rare in children, says Steven Wolf, MD, associate professor of neurology and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. There are nearly 11 cases of childhood stroke per 100,000 U.S. children, according to the American Stroke Association. To put this in perspective, Dr. Wolf says, an average neurologist may see one or two childhood strokes a year and they are usually in the infant stage.
What Causes Stroke in Children?
Unlike adults, the factors contributing to stroke in children are not hypertension, diabetes and cigarette smoking. Instead, developmental, genetic and environmental factors contribute to a child's stroke risk.
"The most common cause of stroke in children is a major infection like meningitis," Wolf says. "Before vaccines we used to see more strokes in children who had meningococcal diseases."
The reason for this short-lived increase in risk may lie in how we treat sickness. "Dehydration can lead to stroke," Wolf says. "High fever can lead to dehydration. There's a reason why we are told to drink fluids when we're sick."
You can help reduce your child's (albeit small and temporary) risk for stroke simply by taking care of him when he has a cold, flu or fever.
"The bottom line is: Don't think your child is going to have a stroke when he gets sick," Wolf says. "Make sure that he gets the basic care—hydration and manage the fever."
Signs of Stroke in Children
Commit the acronym FAST to memory: Face droop, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 9-1-1. This applies to both adults and children, although Wolf says that the face droop is less prominent. "Usually parents report that the child is having difficulty walking, or that their child isn't right," he says. "Kids have a hard time vocalizing what is wrong with them, so use your parental instincts."