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 especially contagious among children in school and daycare. "Only measles and chickenpox 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. Alternately, they can get the flu by touching objects on which the droplets land, and then putting the contaminated 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.
Here are some flu prevention methods every parent should know.
Breast milk is full of immunity-enhancing substances that provide your infant the best protection against germs. Research shows that babies who are breastfed exclusively for at least their first six months are less likely to come down with pneumonia and other flu-related complications. 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. You should also set 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 Dr. Rubin. Also make sure that your daycare provider wipes off tables, sinks, and other common-area surfaces several times a day with antibacterial cleanser or disinfectant.
Don't allow anyone to smoke in your house or 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 Dr. Saari.
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.
Of course, the most effective way to prevent the flu is getting the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over 6 months old get vaccinated. That means you, even if you got the vaccine last year, because your immunity decreases over time and the prevalent flu strains change each season.