How to Prevent the Flu, and Who Needs the Shot
No one can really predict how light or severe any given flu season might be. A lot depends on which strain of influenza circulates, and how strong that virus is. But one things for sure -- "It's almost certain that more people [each year] will be infected," says Joseph Bocchini, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases.
It is important to realize that the flu is a potentially dangerous illness and should be taken seriously," Dr. Bocchini says. Here, how to keep your child well this winter.
The flu is a respiratory infection of the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs caused by several strains of viruses including influenza A, B, or C. It causes achy, feverish, coughing misery for millions of Americans each year during flu season, which typically runs from November through March.
Influenza is highly contagious among kids. "Only measles and chicken pox are more easily spread," says Lorry Rubin, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Schneider Children's Hospital, in New Hyde Park, New York. A child can catch the flu by breathing in virus-carrying droplets that have been sneezed or coughed by an infected person, or by touching objects on which the droplets land and then putting her hands to her nose, eyes, or mouth. The virus can linger in the air for as long as three hours and can live for up to two hours on surfaces like sinks, doorknobs, and stair railings.
Block That Bug
Easy ways to keep your kids from getting the flu.
- Breastfeed. Breast milk is full of immunity-enhancing substances and can provide your infant with the best protection against germs. Research shows that babies who are breastfed exclusively for at least the first six months of life are less likely to come down with pneumonia and other flu-related complications during infancy and beyond. Plus, if you've had any strain of the flu in the past, your breast milk will give your baby some immunity to the virus.
- Wash up. Make sure your child washes her hands after playing with other kids, before eating, and before bedtime. Also set a good example by soaping up yourself. Aim for at least four hand washings a day. "Other than getting the vaccine, frequent hand washing is the most effective way to protect against the flu," says Thomas Saari, M.D., a pediatrician in Madison, Wisconsin, who served on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases.
- Disinfect. Wipe down often-touched surfaces such as stair railings, doorknobs, and sinks with a disinfectant. Any cleaning agent that contains alcohol will kill germs. "Even hand wipes contain enough alcohol to do the trick," says Lorry Rubin, M.D. Also make sure that your day-care provider wipes off tables, sinks, and other common-area surfaces several times a day with antibacterial cleanser or disinfectant.
- Snuff out smoking. Don't allow anyone to smoke in your house or your car. Secondhand smoke irritates the lining of the nose, sinuses, and lungs, which can make your child more susceptible to flu-related complications. "Children exposed to cigarette smoke have a harder time with the flu and other respiratory infections than kids who live in smoke-free environments," Dr. Saari says.
- Don't share everything. Use a paper-cup dispenser in your bathroom, and teach your child that it's not healthy to share cups, straws, soda cans, eating utensils, or musical instruments that touch the mouth. Since babies put everything into their mouth, bring some of your child's own toys to pediatrician appointments to reduce exposure to flu germs. There's no need to become germ phobic, but the more protective steps you take, the higher the odds that your child will stay flu-free this winter.
Who Needs a Shot?
The flu vaccine provides the best defense against the virus. in 2009, the CDC changing their ruling and now recommends that all children ages 6 months up to their 19th birthday get a seasonal flu vaccine (even if they are healthy). And if there's an infant in your family, it's important that all family members and caregivers be immunized, too.
If your concerned about the vaccination or have questions, be sure to talk to your doctor. Flu viruses and vaccines change yearly -- so it is best to educate yourself as much as possible.
The best time to get your child immunized is before the flu season starts in November. But the CDC says kids can still benefit from a shot given at any time during the cold-weather months, when it may become easier to find a flu shot.