What Parents Should Know
By now, you've likely heard about the H1N1 (swine) flu. You may even know someone who's had it, or maybe got a note from your child's school about it. H1N1 has been spreading very quickly in the United States and throughout the world since it first appeared in April 2009. Young children are one of the high-risk groups most at risk for getting H1N1 and experiencing more severe symptoms. Although you may be concerned by some of the more serious cases discussed in the news, H1N1 can be prevented and treated if you know what precautions to take, recognize the symptoms, and seek appropriate medical care.
Swine flu or H1N1? H1N1 was originally referred to as the swine flu because when it was first discovered, it looked very similar to a disease often found in pigs. However, it is actually very different. It is now called H1N1, and is similar to the common (seasonal) flu. It is spread from person to person, and you cannot get it from eating pork or other farm animals. Although H1N1 is similar to the regular flu, it is spread more easily and the symptoms are more severe. Also, there is no reason to cancel a trip to a petting zoo. There is no evidence that H1H1 can spread from touching farm animals including pigs. However, if you do go to the zoo, make sure your child washes his hands afterwards, especially before eating.
What Parents Can Do
Plan ahead. We already know that H1N1 is easily spread, and many people will get it this winter. Because it is contagious, H1N1 can be spread easily among school children. Make sure your child's emergency information has been recently updated. If your child gets sick during the school day, have a plan for who might be able to pick your child up and care for her. Find out what the school's policy is for sending children home and also letting them come back after an illness. Many have tightened their guidelines. You can also check with your child's school about what precautions they are taking. The good news is that most places are now paying greater attention to cleanliness and have hand sanitizers available.
Teach your child to take precautions. H1N1 can be prevented in many of the same ways as a cold or the regular flu. Everyone should wash their hands often with soap and water, or if soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand rub can be used. Teach your child that germs spread through touching one's eyes, nose, and mouth. Remind him not to share food or drinks with others, and to cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away, or into his elbow. You can also check with your child's school about what precautions they are taking. Many places are paying greater attention to cleanliness or have made hand sanitizers available. Make sure your child gets enough rest, eats a balanced diet, and stays hydrated even when he is feeling well.
Vaccinate your child. There is now a vaccine for H1N1 that has just become available. It is different from the flu vaccine. For children over age 2, it is the form of a nasal spray. For children under 9, two doses may be required within 3-4 weeks of each other. Although there is not enough of the vaccine for everyone, children are a priority, and health care professionals recommend that children get both the regular flu and the H1N1 vaccines.
Many parents are hesitant to get their children vaccinated against the flu and H1N1. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine has been thoroughly tested, is safe and can reduce the chance of getting the flu by up 70 to 90% in healthy adults. Although the number is slightly lower in children, the vaccine can also prevent serious complications from the flu. Some people do experience mild side effects ranging from being sore at the injection site to getting a mild fever. Very few people experience serious side effects. If parents have concerns, they are encouraged to visit the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS) website or call 1-800-822-7967. There are some people who should not get the vaccine, so it's important to check with your doctor.
Recognize the symptoms. H1N1 is similar to the flu, a bad cold or virus. Symptoms include fever, chills, sore throat or cough, stuffy or runny nose, headache, body ache, and fatigue. Some other symptoms seen especially with H1N1 include vomiting and diarrhea. Talk to your pediatrician about giving over-the-counter medications to help relieve your child's symptoms. It is not safe to give children products containing Aspirin. If your child is at least 5 years old, you can give her Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or Ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), and also over-the-counter cold and flu remedies that do not contain Aspirin. For children age 4 or younger, check with the doctor before giving any medication. You can also use a humidifier to help clear your child's congestion, and for children under age 2, you can use a suction bulb to help clear mucus.
Call the doctor. If your child has trouble breathing or if his skin turns bluish/grayish, if he experiences continuous vomiting, is not interacting, or has not had any fluids and is not urinating, get him medical attention as soon as possible. If you aren't sure whether your child has the flu or just a cold, take him to the doctor. Your pediatrician may give your child antiviral medication to help him get better faster and reduce any complications, especially if she has another chronic illness such as asthma. The most common antiviral medication used to treat the flu is Tamiflu.
While your child recovers. If possible, set aside a certain area of your home for your child to recover, such as her bedroom or the living room. Limit interaction with other family members, especially other children, so that they don't catch the infection. Make sure everyone in the family wash their hands often. She may not want to do much, but keep some books on hand. Reading is a great pastime when a child is sick. Don't send your child back to school until she is completely well. Most schools have a policy that children must be fever-free for at least 24 hours (without taking any fever-reducing medication). Remember, the flu can leave your child weak. Make sure she gets plenty of fluids and rest even when she does return to school. Make arrangements with her teachers to send work home or get extra help and extra time for assignments once she is able to return.
For more information for parents on H1N1, visit http://www.flu.gov/individualfamily/parents/index.html#school or http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/may09swinefluqanda.htm.
For more information on talking to children about the flu, visit http://www.nasponline.org/resources/Talking_With_Children_About_Flu_FINAL.pdf .