As the school year begins, new cases of H1N1 influenza are popping up daily. With children in such close contact with one another, parents are asking: What can we do until a vaccine is ready? How can we protect children from H1N1?
Plenty, according to OMRF experts. And most of it is surprisingly simple.
“The single most important thing you can do to protect your children from H1N1 flu and other communicable illnesses is to make sure they wash their hands,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
Most people touch their eyes, nose or mouth more than 100 times a day, said Prescott, and flu viruses can live up to two days on surfaces. “Kids’ hands pick up germs constantly, especially at school, which is a place where bacteria and viruses can thrive. To minimize the chances of infection, kids should wash their hands regularly with either soap and water or an alcohol–based hand sanitizer.”
Another key to preventing the spread of H1N1 is teaching children to cover coughs and sneezes. “Respiratory viral infections like H1N1 are transmitted when an infectious person coughs or sneezes, sending infectious droplets into the air,” said OMRF immunologist Robert “Hal” Scofield, M.D. “If those droplets are contained at the source, they can’t infect others.”
When covering coughs and sneezes, children should use their arms or sleeves rather than their hands. “This minimizes the chances that they’ll pass germs to another person or surface,” said Scofield.
If children are showing symptoms of H1N1, Scofield urges parents to keep them at home in order to avoid infecting others. “Fever, cough and body aches are the most common symptoms,” he said. “A fever of 100 degrees or more means a person is probably contagious.”
If H1N1 symptoms appear, Scofield recommends a visit to the doctor. “Physicians everywhere are preparing for this flu season like never before,” he said. “They want to protect their patients, and they will be your first line of defense when it comes to fighting flu or other infectious diseases.”
Because H1N1 can be transmitted even after a person no longer manifests symptoms, Prescott urges parents to be cautious in sending children who’ve been infected back to school. “It’s best to wait 24 hours after the fever subsides,” said Prescott. “Even if a child is feeling better, he or she may still be contagious.”
Whatever happens, said Prescott, don’t panic. “Although H1N1 influenza is highly contagious, most cases we’ve seen to date have been mild.”