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Prepping for the Flu Season

Recently, while sitting at home and preparing to go to the beach, Dan the mailman, as my children call him, dropped our daily mail pile through the door slot. As I picked up the myriad of catalogues, bills and junk mail that were strewn across my front hall, I recoiled in horror. There was the L.L. Bean catalogue, and on the front page was a model wearing clothing for autumn. Autumn?!? It’s July! Needless to say, I was not prepared to think about long sleeves, leaves changing colors or, dare I say it—school.

After calming myself down, I realized that working for the L.L. Bean catalogue is much like being a pediatrician. No, I don’t get to discuss stylish clothing (and as my children would point out emphatically, I am certainly not qualified to discuss style in any form), but just like the fashionistas at J. Crew or Banana Republic, pediatricians are also thinking of the fall while most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States is still worrying about vacation and beach umbrellas.

So while I’m still concerned about summer issues like sun protection (wear your SPF 30 sunblock!), outdoor safety (wear your bicycle helmet! Don’t leave children near the pool unsupervised!) and the risk of dehydration (drink lots of fluids!), I would like to take a moment and discuss an issue that is more important in the fall and—dare I say it—the winter (ugh!), and that is the flu.

Influenza, which is commonly called the flu, is caused by a virus that can infect your respiratory tract. Typical symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headaches and muscle aches. Intestinal symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea, tend to affect children more than adults.

It’s nearly impossible to predict in advance whether it will be a light or a heavy flu year. The strain of influenza that arrives every year changes. You catch influenza from droplets that can be spread when people cough, sneeze or even talk. And to make matters worse, you may be contagious a full day before symptoms develop, so it’s very difficult to avoid contact with the virus.

There are certain common sense actions you can take to avoid catching the flu. Keep yourself and your child away from people who are sick as much as possible. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or sneeze and cough into the crook of your arm. Wash your hands often with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand cleaner, especially if you cough or sneeze. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth if you can avoid it. Germs can be spread that way. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, especially if someone at home is sick. But there’s one really easy way to try to avoid getting the flu.

The main reason I’m bringing up the flu in the middle of the summer is because I want to convince you of the importance of immunizing your children against influenza. By getting vaccinated against the flu, you can prevent these symptoms from developing and avoid missing work and school. But even more important than that, you can avoid the complications that can sometimes accompany the influenza virus. These include ear and sinus infections, bacterial pneumonia and dehydration. People with underlying conditions like asthma, heart disease or diabetes run the risk of worsening their chronic medical conditions from the flu. You should take the flu seriously. Hundreds of thousands of people get hospitalized every year from the flu in the United States, and thousands of people die from flu-related complications (between 3,000 and 40,000 fatalities per year over the last 30 years).

Although influenza activity tends to peak in January or later, flu outbreaks can start as early as October. Since the vaccine can take up to two weeks to provide full protection, we recommend getting vaccinated as soon as it is offered by your doctor. And since the strains of the influenza virus change yearly, you need to get vaccinated every year.

Vaccination for the flu is available for children ages six months and up. It is safe, it is effective and it saves lives. Flumist, a nasal spray version of the vaccine, is available for children ages two years and up, so if your children are needle-phobic, they can just take the Flumist and be protected. You can receive Flumist until age 50.

As pediatricians, we aim to prevent illness as well as treat it. That is why we strongly recommend the flu vaccine. One small injection or nasal spray can prevent one to two weeks of an unpleasant illness and its serious complications.

Now that I have spoken my piece, please go back to enjoying your summer. Grab some watermelon. Grill that hotdog. Surf’s up, dude.

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics. Most days he can be found in the Paramus location.

By Dr. Larry Stiefel, Tenafly Pediatrics

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