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Be Prepared: Tips for Avoiding Seasonal Flu, and Other Viruses, Too

By Benjamin Kruskal, M.D., Pediatrician and Chief of Infectious Disease at Atrius Health

School is starting and so is flu season. With memories of last year’s flu season still fresh in the minds of many, parents are likely wondering: What’s going to happen this flu season? How do I keep my kids and my family healthy?

First -- take a deep breath and recognize that there are simple, common sense steps you and your children can take to reduce the likelihood of infection. While no one can predict what this year’s flu season will look like exactly, there are some tried-and-true tips to help you stay healthy that bear repeating. There are also some pitfalls to avoid.

Among the Dos:

  • Get vaccinated. CDC recommends the flu vaccination for all patients age 6 months or older. Seasonal flu vaccination should begin in September and continue throughout the influenza season, all the way through the end of March at least.
  • If you are in a high risk group – children under 6 and adults 50 and over are among them; so are anyone with chronic illness, for example, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and people with compromised immune systems – not only should YOU be vaccinated, but your close contacts should be as well. Protection from the vaccine is not 100%, so surrounding high risk individuals with a protective ring of vaccinated contacts provides additional protection even if the high risk person is vaccinated.
  • Get your children in the habit of washing their hands often – when they use the bathroom, before and after they eat, and after touching things at a public place like a museum, school, or playground. They should wash with soap and warm water and they should do it long enough to be able to sing “Happy Birthday” and so should you.
  • Give your older children small, easy to carry bottles of alcohol-based anti-bacterial gel, like Purell, and encourage your school to stock the classrooms with it. No water needed. Just squirt, rub your hands together and 99 percent of germs are gone in 20 seconds.
  • Pack children’s backpacks with tissues and teach them that when they sneeze to use the tissues to cover their mouths. If there is no tissue handy, teach them to sneeze into their shirt or the crook of their elbow, and not cover their mouths with their hands.
  • Shaking hands with someone who is sick is asking for trouble. Keep your distance when you know or suspect someone has a cold. More viruses are transmitted from contact with skin or by close face to face contact than from germs drifting through the air.
  • Keep your child’s immunity up by making sure they get enough sleep, and by eating a healthy diet.

Among the Don'ts:

  • If you suspect your child may be sick with the flu - fever, body-aches, stuffy or runny nose, cough, sore throat - don't send them to school. Keep your child home for at least 24 hours after the fever subsides. If your child is in a high-risk group (with a chronic illness such as asthma or diabetes), he or she may be a candidate for an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Call your doctor's office promptly to check -- antiviral medications, if needed, work best if started within the first day or two of clear cut flu symptoms.
  • According to CDC, in most cases, there is no advantage in using a facemask in public. This is mostly recommended for health care workers caring for sick patients. If you have a sick person in the home, a facemask -- worn by either the sick or healthy person when getting close to each other -- may help decrease transmission, along with careful attention to hand cleansing (with either soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub).

Being prepared for the flu is the best defense and it is not too early to get ready.

For more information about the flu, visit the following web sites: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/ or http://www.cdc.gov/flu/parents/index.htm

 

Watch Dr. Ben Kruskal answer commonly-asked questions about the flu and the flu vaccine.