Start saving those sick days. Children are especially vulnerable this flu season compared to previous years, thanks to an early predominance of Influenza B, a type of flu that impacts children most severely, cautions Adrienne Randolph, M.D., Harvard professor of pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Influenza (PICFLU) Network. Per the CDC, this hasn’t happened since the early 1990s.
That means parents like Tash Haynes, a 38-year-old photographer and mother of two from Tacoma, will take extra precautions against getting sick. Haynes didn’t take the flu seriously until 2017, when she was hospitalized for 16 days for pneumonia and congestive heart failure brought on by influenza.
Now fully recovered, Tash makes sure her family gets vaccinated against the flu and helps educate parents through the nonprofit agency Families Fighting Flu. “If you can prevent an experience like mine, why wouldn’t you?” she says.
So far this year, 68 children have died from the flu. The most at risk of severe flu-related complications or death are those younger than 4 and older than 65, and children under 6 months of age who can’t get a flu shot.
Add in the mounting reports of coronavirus, an illness with flu-like symptoms first seen in China, and you may want to keep your children home until summer. Since that’s not practical, here’s what you need to know about this flu season to keep your family healthy.
As if getting sick once isn’t bad enough, it is possible to catch the flu twice in one season, since there are multiple strains circulating and getting sick with one doesn’t provide immunity against another. The best way to protect against the flu is by getting vaccinated, as vaccines protect against multiple strains of influenza A and B, says Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatrician Janet Englund, M.D., principal investigator for the Seattle Flu Study.
Don’t throw away your hand sanitizer
The FDA recently warned the maker of Purell hand sanitizer against making claims that the product prevents illness. But don’t pitch the Purell just yet. Although the CDC recommends thorough handwashing with soap and water whenever possible, hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol are effective when used correctly and allowed to dry for at least 30 seconds.
“I think that the hand sanitizer announcement was a little bit unfortunate and maybe misinterpreted. Hand sanitizers have an important role, but handwashing is also extremely important,” says Randolph. “If you can’t get to a sink and do a thorough job with soap and water, then please use hand sanitizer if it is available.”
Better late than never
There’s still time to get your shot, because our flu season is far from over — in the Pacific Northwest, influenza is active though June. But don’t delay. The flu shot’s protective effect kicks in 10–14 days post-poke, and children younger than age 9 require two flu shots before they’re fully immunized. “In February, there’s definitely still a benefit to getting immunized,” says Englund. “In April, there would be less benefit.”
Keep sick kids at home
Even in the cleanest of classrooms, flu spreads rapidly between children occupying confined spaces, says Randolph. “The flu is spread by droplets, which can be spread by anyone who sneezes, coughs or touches a surface. So, it’s very important to wash your hands and use hand sanitizers, but it’s also important to be aware that this alone is not enough to prevent influenza from spreading.” Keeping children at home if they’re still coughing or showing symptoms — even if they no longer have a fever — helps protect others from getting sick.
Protect the bump
Expecting a baby in 2020? Getting a flu shot now provides important protection for you and your baby, defending against illness during pregnancy and beyond. “Pregnant women are very vulnerable to complications from the flu,” says Randolph. “Getting an influenza shot during pregnancy may help enhance the effect of the maternal antibodies transmitted to the infant, which provide some protection against flu for the first few months of life.”
Despite a full recovery, Tash Haynes is still impacted by her flu ordeal. “Because I had heart failure, any future pregnancy will be high-risk, and every time I fill out a medical form, I have to check that I’ve had heart failure,” she says. “This will be with me for my entire life, which is why it’s so important for parents to do their research and protect their families. The flu isn’t something to mess around with.”