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.
Easy ways to keep your kids from getting the flu.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the December 2004 issue of Parents magazine.
Updated November 2009/p>