Influenza comes around every year, but you probably don’t think much about it after you get your flu shots—that is, until a family member suddenly doesn’t feel well. Although a bout of the illness is usually nothing more than uncomfortable and inconvenient, there’s no way to tell how severe a case will be (especially in kids), so the threat shouldn’t be taken lightly. We asked experts who treat influenza to share strategies for dealing with the bug.
“People say, ‘The vaccine will make me sick’ or ‘I probably won’t get the flu,’ ” notes Patricia Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse-practitioner in infectious disease at Children’s Minnesota and vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “But you’d never say, ‘We won’t get in a car accident, so we won’t use child car seats or seat belts.’ The flu shot isn’t perfect, but you’ll be way more protected with it than without it.”
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies each year, but it usually reduces the risk of doctor visits by 40 to 60 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The shot also reduces the severity and duration of the flu, if you still happen to get it.
The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months get the flu shot. Ideally, you should get vaccinated as soon as possible, or at least by Halloween, but you can receive the shot throughout flu season.
Stock Your Fridge and Freezer
Flu hits quickly and spreads rapidly, so it’s helpful to have remedies on hand. You might, for example, have frozen meals and soups to fall back on, as well as ice pops because they feel good on sore throats and help keep kids hydrated.
Beverages with electrolytes, such as sports drinks and Pedialyte, are another smart staple. “Dehydration is always a concern when kids are sick. They may not want to eat, but it’s essential to drink,” notes Shari Platt, M.D., chief of pediatric emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Fruits and veggies with a high water content (like watermelon, oranges, cucumber, and bell peppers) also help with hydration and have a milder flavor if you’re feeling nauseous.
Improve Your Hand Hygiene
Thorough and frequent hand-washing is the best way to prevent the spread of flu. Motivate diligent scrubbing by praising your kids when they follow through and letting them pick out their own soap. And teach them to cough into their elbow instead of their hands.
Go to the Doctor
It might seem easiest to give your kid acetaminophen or ibuprofen for a sore throat or a fever rather than call the doc, but that’s a mistake when you suspect flu. An antiviral prescription, such as Tamiflu, can lessen symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. It has to be given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, so an early diagnosis is key.
Unlike the common cold, flu symptoms come on suddenly and are generally more intense—fever, chills, muscle or body aches, headaches, extreme fatigue. Kids may also have a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and even vomiting or diarrhea. To know if the flu virus is circulating in your community, follow the CDC’s FluView data, monitor Communidy.com, which tracks positive flu tests by neighborhood, or get the Sickweather app, which scans social networks for outbreaks.
If you suspect your child has influenza, it’s best to call your doctor’s office or clinic and alert them first. You may be asked to enter and wait in a separate area. For some kids, especially those at high risk, the doctor may choose to phone in a prescription for an antiviral flu treatment, particularly when it’s later in the season and flu is already circulating. “The CDC says that antivirals can also be given to other family members who aren’t yet sick to prevent the flu,” notes Flor Munoz, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston.
Set Up Sick Spaces
Separate your ill family members from the rest of the crew. For younger kids, arrange a spot where you can keep an eye out, but avoid letting them go near food prep. “Designating a sick ‘base camp’ limits the spread and makes it easy to manage your patients,” notes Michelle Davis-Dash, M.D., a pediatrician in Baltimore.
Stock it with blankets, disinfectant wipes and spray, tissues (give each family member a box), plenty of fluids, and any toys, books, games, crafts, or electronics your kid likes. Sick family members should also use a separate bathroom (if you have one) and have a dedicated trash can with a lid and lined with a plastic bag to keep germs contained. When weather permits, open a window in the sickroom—or use a fan—to keep air circulating.
Show Germs Who's Boss
Flu sufferers are most contagious in the first three to four days of illness, but they can infect others for up to seven days. The virus can spread through the air when someone coughs, sneezes, or breathes on you, or if you touch a surface. “It’s a big, heavy virus, so it doesn’t stay in the air very long,” Stinchfield notes. “If someone with the flu coughs next to a countertop or a desk and you put your hands on it a few hours later and then touch your face, the virus can enter the mucous membranes on your lips, mouth, nose, and eyes.”
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Keep disinfecting wipes in every room and use them regularly on everything hands touch: doorknobs, light switches, faucets, remotes, and counters. Flu germs also love toothbrushes. “Don’t leave them out or store them near others; replace them often, and give each person their own rinsing cup,” says Stinchfield.
Call In Reinforcements
Don’t try to power through. “The body aches you experience with the flu are telling you to rest,” Stinchfield says. Just make sure whoever comes to your rescue has had a flu vaccine (those over 65 should receive the high-dose option). Have your helper wash her hands often and avoid touching her face. If frequent close contact is necessary, such as feeding a sick baby, she might want to wear a face mask, and have her hold your ill kid by putting his chin on her shoulder facing away from her face.
Cut Everyone Some Slack
Ditch screen-time rules, outsource as much as possible, and take advantage of grocery- and meal-delivery services, says Dr. Davis-Dash. Even if you’re not the sick one, you need to rest too. Caregiving takes a lot out of you. It’s totally appropriate to drink hot water with honey and lemon while watching your favorite shows all day.