Getting a flu shot is the best way for parents and their kids to minimize their flu risk. But the shot does not come with a guarantee, so parents should take additional steps to keep their kids healthy.
Teaching children good hand hygiene is a must. Flu viruses can spread when people touch something with a virus on it and then touch their mouth, eyes or nose. Parents should remind their kids to wash their hands with soap and water frequently -- and correctly.
To be effective, hand-washing should last 20 seconds. A good rule of thumb for older kids is to count to 20 slowly while washing their hands. Younger kids might find it easier to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Parents also should encourage kids to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
Another must: teaching kids to avoid touching their mouth, nose and eyes. Preventing all such behaviors is not a realistic goal, especially with younger kids, but parents can minimize it by regularly reiterating why kids should keep their hands away from their face.
It's also important to emphasize that kids should not use others' cups, glasses, water bottles, eating utensils or plates. This rule should apply not only outside the home, but also among family members.
The flu -- which spreads primarily when people inhale droplets emitted when someone with the flu coughs, sneezes or talks -- already can spread easily among family members. It does not need a helping hand.
People with the flu can infect others one day before symptoms appear and for up to seven days after getting sick. Young children, the severely ill and people with severely weakened immune systems can remain contagious for longer. People with the flu are most contagious when they are running a fever.
For these reasons, parents should encourage their kids to keep their distance from people with flu symptoms. Parents who get the flu should stay home and avoid close contact with their kids.
If the kids get the flu, they also should stay home to avoid infecting others. Schools typically require kids to be free of fever and off fever-reducing medication for at least 24 hours before they can return to school.
When kids cough or sneeze, parents should encourage them to cover their mouth with a tissue and then throw it away. If a tissue is not available, they should cough or sneeze into their arm or elbow. They never should cough or sneeze into their hands because doing so increases the chance of spreading germs to others.
Parents also should regularly clean and disinfect surfaces and objects where flu viruses or other bugs might reside. If parents bring a child to see a pediatrician, they should consider bringing their own toys rather than allowing the child to play with waiting-room toys, which usually are cleaned regularly, but still can harbor germs.
Although these steps can reduce the risk of flu, they will work best in concert with a flu shot. Parents whose children have not gotten their shot yet should act soon.
Shots given in November or December still can be effective, and the shot remains the best way to avoid the flu.
• Children's Health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Bonnie Stabrawa, M.D., a pediatrician with the Amita Health Medical Group, part of Amita Health, which is comprised of nine acute and specialty care suburban hospitals, including Amita Health Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital Hoffman Estates. For more information on pediatric programs visit: www.amitahealth.org.