This year’s influenza season has hit early and hit hard in Washington state. Influenza is an airborne viral infection that spreads easily from person to person. For parents, fighting the flu on the homefront can feel like a game of dominoes. You just know that if the first one catches it and “tips,” others are likely to go down too. But what can families do to treat the sick person in the best possible way while keeping siblings or others from getting infected?
Jessica McHugh, M.D., a family medicine doctor in Overlake Medical Center’s Sammamish clinic offers the following tips:
Separate the sick person. A sick child can bring out our own most loving, protective tendencies. When they're suffering a high fever, coughing incessantly and feeling horrible, parents want to offer comfort. Our inclination may be to let the child rest on the couch in a family room or common area. But with a flu patient’s cough or sneeze can spread droplets as many as six feet away, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It is far better to plant the sick person in a ‘recovery’ room, whether it’s their own bedroom or a room that only they are in,” says Dr. McHugh.
Cover their cough and sneeze. When setting them up in their own room, give your sick patient a box of tissue to catch their coughs and sneezes as much as they can. McHugh says to make sure they throw those infected tissues away right afterwards. And while it may seem wasteful to not use a cloth handkerchief, now may not be the time to be as environmentally conscious. The CDC says the flu virus can live on some surfaces for up 24 hours.
Wash hands thoroughly. Flu patients, their caregivers and others in the house need to treat hand washing like a marathon rather than a sprint. Normally, we may let our kids get away with the quick swipe under the running water. But this is not the time for speed.
Flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 degrees, according to the CDC. But for children, that temperature is far too hot. Many of us have heeded the recommendation for safety reasons to set our water heater thermostat to 120 degrees.
Instead of dangerously hot water, use water that is as warm as children are comfortable with. Then teach kids to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice to keep their hands under water long enough. And while detergents and antiseptic products in soap can also help kill the virus, McHugh says the most important thing is the method of hand washing: “Make sure they are washing between their fingers, getting the front and back of their hands and into the crevasses.”
Clean house like you like it. Bellevue residents Dan and Holly typically enjoy winter sports with their 6-year-old son, Oscar, and their 4-year-old daughter, Ella. But with flu and other sickness spreading like fire through their house more than once already this season, they have now adopted a new weekend routine: deep cleaning. Three times a week, they take chlorine-based wipes to doorknobs, countertops and other hard surfaces in their house. Then each weekend, they run bath toys through the dishwasher and do laundry, including “lovies” like blankets and stuffed animals, on hot water cycles.
Get the flu vaccine. The CDC reported recently that the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of influenza by 40 percent to 60 percent among the overall population. Some parents may wonder if it’s worth it to get kids vaccinated. “Absolutely,” says Dr. McHugh. “Even if it’s just 40 percent, that is still many people who can be helped. Plus, by getting yourself and your children vaccinated you can reduce the spread of flu to vulnerable populations such as younger children and seniors.”
Attack early with antivirals. When used for treatment, antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu can lessen symptoms and shorten the time someone is sick by one or two days. Get to your doctor early, especially if you have a chronic medical condition, as the antivirals work best when given in the first 48 hours of symptoms, according to McHugh. Even if you have missed the 48-hour window, antiviral drugs may still be helpful, especially if the sick person is at high risk of serious flu complications, according to the CDC.
A word of caution about herbal treatments. Consult with your physician first if you choose to use herbs or another complementary therapy to get you through; herbs can interact with other medications, including low-dose aspirin and Tylenol.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2018, and updated in December 2019.