The flu or influenza is a virus spread during winter through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air, sharing food and drinks, kissing on the mouth and passing germs on your hands. In older children and adults, influenza commonly causes fever, headache, body aches, runny nose, sore throat and cough. In young children, influenza can also cause ear infection, sinus infection, croup, pneumonia, stomachache, vomiting and diarrhea. Although we mostly hear of the danger of flu in the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions, young children have the second highest rate of illness and hospitalization for influenza—each year 10 to 40 percent of children catch influenza and 1 percent need to be hospitalized.
The best way to prevent the flu is by getting the vaccine every year, in October or November. Unfortunately, the shortage of injectable flu vaccine and the changes in recommendations have led to some confusion and worry. In the fall of 2004, as a result of a shortage of the flu vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics temporarily recommended that priority be given to individuals at highest risk for severe illness from the flu. As of January 2005, some states regained a sufficient supply of flu vaccine, leading to a return to the previous recommendations for vaccinating a wider population. So for this year, the recommendations may differ by state, and you'll need to consult your child's doctor and/or your local health department about vaccine availability. Here's a summary of the recommendations for flu vaccine for the high priority population (and, in parenthesis, for the wider population in areas where an adequate supply of vaccine is available): Children:
- children ages 6 to 23 months
- children over 2 with chronic medical conditions such as lung, heart, kidney or immune system problems, and children on chronic aspirin therapy
- women who will be pregnant during influenza season
- adults with chronic medical conditions such as lung, heart, kidney or immune system problems
- all adults 65 and older (50 years and older, where vaccine available)
- nursing home residents
- healthcare workers, caregivers and household contacts of children under 6 months of age (and also caregivers of children 6 to 23 months, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions, where vaccine available).
A new alternative flu vaccine, delivered by nasal spray instead of injection, is available for healthy people age 5 to 49 who are not pregnant.
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, you can also reduce your children's chance of catching the flu and other contagious illnesses by following basic hygiene measures:
- If someone is sick with any contagious illness, ask that visits be postponed until he or she is healthy.
- Cover your mouth with your arm when you cough or sneeze. If you cover your mouth with your hand, germs get onto your hands. If you don't wash your hands right away, you spread germs to everything and everyone you touch.
- Wash your hands frequently. Be sure to wash them after going to the bathroom and changing diapers, after wiping noses and before preparing food and bottles.
- Don't smoke and don't let other people smoke around your children, inside your home or inside the car. Children exposed to smoke are at greater risk for respiratory illnesses such as colds and flu, ear infections and asthma.
- Kiss your children on the forehead or cheek instead of the mouth.
- Don't share food and drinks, give your baby food from your mouth or put the baby's pacifier in your mouth.
- Don't keep your children cooped up indoors all winter. Cold, fresh air does not cause colds and flu—it
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.