How to Prevent the Flu

Are you up-to-date on all the new flu facts? Be sure you're in the know regarding this highly contagious winter illness.

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.

Flu Facts

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Cold or Flu and When Your Child Becomes Worse

Characteristics of a COLD ...

  • Can develop year-round; more common in fall and winter
  • Symptoms come on slowly, over the course of several days
  • No fever or low fever (101°F or less)
  • Runny nose, sneezing, congestion, sore throat
  • Small amount of coughing
  • No nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Normal appetite
  • Mild fatigue; child has enough energy to play
  • Typically lasts 5 to 6 days

Characteristics of the FLU ...

  • Strikes during the cold-weather months
  • Symptoms come on suddenly, within 24 hours
  • Higher fever (usually over 101°F)
  • Respiratory symptoms plus chills, headache, and body aches
  • Lots of coughing, often after fever subsides
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea can occur in children younger than 6
  • Little or no appetite
  • Extreme fatigue; child has no desire to run around and play
  • Typically lasts 10 to 14 days; most severe in first 3 to 4 days

Treating the Flu
Treating the Flu

Feel-Better Tips and Tricks

That pesky flu bug blew past your best defenses? Unfortunately, there's no magic pill that can cure the flu. Ordinary antibiotics don't kill viruses, so all you can do is make your child as comfortable as possible. Here's how.

Ease the aches. As soon as your child exhibits flu symptoms, ask your pediatrician whether he can prescribe an antiviral drug. The sooner you start the medication, the more effective it will be. Alternatively, regular doses of ibuprofen or acetaminophen, under your doctor's supervision, can also help ease symptoms.

Use meds in moderation. Many over-the-counter flu preparations have ingredients that cause side effects in kids, such as irritability and overstimulation. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics says not to use cold medicines for children under the age of six. Cough medicines that contain dextromethorphan can help your older child sleep by suppressing a cough, but check with your doctor first. Coughing helps clear small airways, so it's not always a good idea to quell it.

Push fluids over food. Don't worry if your child doesn't feel like eating for a couple of days. "He'll catch up once he gets better," Dr. Rubin says. "Getting fluids into him is more important." Have your child's favorite beverage nearby at all times, and encourage him to drink up.

Keep the air moist. Running a vaporizer or a cool-mist humidifier in your child's bedroom can help keep mucous membranes hydrated, ease breathing, and calm a dry cough. (Be sure to clean it daily to prevent mold, which can make respiratory symptoms worse.)

Let her sleep. Your child's body is fighting a serious virus, so she needs as much rest as she can get. Check in on her frequently, but don't disturb her sleep.

Serve chicken soup. Cool liquids feel better than warm ones when a child has a fever, but try offering chicken soup after your child's fever breaks. Besides being the ultimate comfort food, chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory substances that may ease flu symptoms, one study found.

When Symptoms Turn Scary

Most kids recover fully from the flu after a week or two of feeling crummy. But in some cases, the virus can lead to a more serious illness, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, encephalitis (brain swelling), or inflammation of the heart. Babies and toddlers are at highest risk because of their small airways and immature immune systems. Call your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following red flags.

  1. Boomerang fever
    A fever that goes away and then comes back could signal a secondary or bacterial infection. Normally, fever lasts the first three or four days of the illness. "Once the fever breaks for a day, it should be gone," says Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin and author of Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year.
  2. Breathing irregularities
    Fast, shallow breathing, sucking in of the rib cage, flaring of the nostrils, or tiny grunts with each breath can be signs of pneumonia. Labored breathing may warrant a trip to the E.R., but call your pediatrician first.
  3. Dehydration
    A high fever tends to increase your child's fluid loss, which will make it harder for his body to fight the infection. Extreme dehydration can even be life-threatening. Signs of it in an infant include no wet diapers for eight hours and a sunken fontanel (soft spot on his head). In an older child, look for crying without tears, sunken eyes, prunelike skin, less-frequent urination, and dark-yellow urine (the color of apple juice).
  4. Increasing sickness
    Dramatic changes in behavior — such as not making eye contact, not crying when expected, acting disoriented, or appearing extremely listless — could mean that your child is getting worse, not better. Trust your instincts. "If your child looks and acts extremely sick, it's best to error on the side of caution and have her examined," Dr. Brown says.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the December 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

Updated November 2009

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