Tips for nipping the flu in the bud

Learn how to prevent your family from being bitten by the H1N1 bug.

By Pia Hinckle

The advent of the H1N1 (or swine) flu last year raised most people’s awareness — and fear — of the influenza virus. Now flu season has hit hard and early on the playground and in the office. To offer but one example, Michigan recently announced that 194 schools had shut down because of H1N1 outbreaks. It’s only natural to want to take some sort of precautions for your kids.

But what can parents do? Just getting vaccinated is easier said than done. Although regular flu vaccinations are widely available nationwide, the H1N1 vaccine has not arrived in every corner of the country — nor is it available to every demographic. What’s more, the vaccine requires two doses one month apart, so even if you rush your little ones to a clinic tomorrow, it will be another 30 days before they are no longer vulnerable to the virus.

The key to nipping the bug before it bites

Both types of flu viruses are spread person-to-person through airborne contact (coughs and sneezes) and physical contact (close contact or touching infected items and then touching your face).

Here are some tips and resources to keep your family healthy this flu season:

Don’t worry, just wash often: Always wash your hands before eating and after sneezing, coughing, going to the restroom, or shaking hands. French researchers found that just one healthcare worker with dirty hands could infect an entire hospital. As it turns out, most people do not wash their hands correctly. Here’s how: Wet your hands. Use soap and lather for 15 seconds. Rinse. Towel or air-dry hands. Use a towel to turn off the faucet. If water is not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethyl alcohol (which kills germs) or antimicrobial towelettes.

Cover your mouth: If you sneeze or cough, do so in a tissue or into your elbow or shirtsleeve. This prevents germs from spreading to other people.

Avoid touching your face: Your nose, mouth, and eyes are easy entry points for viruses to invade your body. Try not to touch them, and make sure you always wash your hands before you do.

Clean surface areas: Wipe down conference tables and airplane armrests and trays with disinfecting wipes before using them.

The lowdown on flu vaccines

H1N1: Looking for the H1N1 vaccine in your town? Go to www.flu.gov and search the interactive map by state. Wondering how to determine the truths and tall tales behind the H1N1 flu and vaccine? Go here. Not sure if your child’s sore throat warrants a trip to the emergency room? Take the H1N1 self-evaluation and make an informed decision.

Regular influenza: More than 30,000 people still die in the United States each year from the seasonal flu. Get vaccinated by your doctor or at your local pharmacy:

Influenza vaccines contain the preservative thimerosal, which contains ethylmercury. While thimerosal has been used in most vaccines since the 1930s, its use in childhood vaccines was discontinued in 1999. Concerned about thimerosal? Learn more about it on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website. There are limited supplies of influenza vaccine without thimerosal — contact your physician to see if it is available.

What if you still get sick?

Stay home until you have been fever-free without medication for at least 24 hours. Flu symptoms vary but may include fever, cough, chills, sore throat, body aches, and fatigue. Drinks lots of fluids and get plenty of rest.

For detailed information on the flu and prevention efforts, visit the CDC's flu page.

This article was adapted from the FruitGuys Almanac.

Pia Hinckle, a former business editor of the San Francisco Examiner, has written for a wide variety of publications including Newsweek, Salon, and MarketWatch. She lives in San Francisco with her three children.