Learn how to prevent -- and treat -- this highly contagious winter illness.
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The flu is a respiratory infection of the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs caused by any of three strains of viruses -- 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: 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.
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.
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., chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Schneider Children's Hospital, in New Hyde Park, New York. 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," says Thomas Saari, M.D., a pediatrician in Madison, Wisconsin, who served on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases.
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?
Virtually everyone should get the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expanded its annual flu shot advice to include everyone over 6 months old. That means you, even if you got both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 vaccine last year, because your immunity decreases over time and this year's shot includes a new strain. And even if you're pregnant, no matter what trimester you're in. Until now, the vaccine had been recommended only for children under 18, adults over 49, and those at special risk because of a medical condition and their caregivers.
Flu vs. Cold
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 degrees 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 degrees 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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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, Updated 2010