Keeping Your Family Healthy in Cold and Flu Season

I recently had the good fortune to attend a lunchtime presentation by Dr. Meg Meeker, a Michigan pediatrician and bestselling author, about keeping our families healthy during cold and flu season.*

Considering my own family has been juggling what seems like one cold after another (interspersed with sinus infections and other delights) for the past four months, I thought this could be some useful information.

And hey, it was at Finale. Their cocoa is good. (Yes, I might be that easy.)

topped with house-made marshmallows, of course

Dr. Meg Meeker reminded us (“us” being a whole passel of local parent bloggers) that we know our children best. We know when he or she isn’t feeling well. Sometimes a cold (which is viral) passes, leaving a bacterial infection behind. If a child has thick, yellow snot, it’s a bacterial infection.

If you think your child has the flu, says Dr. Meg, head to the doctor for Tamiflu or other such medications. Don’t wait it out.

“Dr. Meg” (as she likes to be called)

Dr. Meg talked about fevers and taking temperatures. Vicks has just come out with a behind-the-ear thermometer: less invasive than rectal, more accurate than armpit or forehead, and easier to use on very young children than oral. What more could you ask for? Plus, the thermometer stores the last 8 readings and lights up with a color (green, yellow, red) depending on the reading it gets, so you know if you can go back to sleep or should try to get the temperature down pronto.

Dr. Meg addressed some common myths about fevers, such as “Feed a fever, starve a cold.” When a child (or anyone) has a fever, it is important to keep the person hydrated, with adequate amounts of sodium and potassium. Pedialyte is ideal; Gatorade is too strong for children under the age of 2.

She also talked about febrile seizures, which are caused not by the height of the fever itself but by a rapid rise in temperature. One-third of children who have febrile seizures will have another one at some point. A high temperature by itself doesn’t cause brain damage, as we often believe, but a febrile seizure that lasts for more than 20 minutes can cause brain damage. (In any case, I hear they are scary.)

To lower your child’s temperature, Dr. Meg suggests the following:

  • Don’t use an alcohol rub (even if your mother or grandmother swears by it!). The alcohol can be absorbed through the skin. This is not good for children.
  • Put your child in a tepid bath (not a cold bath).
  • Use ibuprofen and/or Tylenol (it’s OK to alternate them. She recommends rectal Tylenol (the idea being that it is less disruptive to a sleeping child than oral medicine would be, but frankly I find the idea of inserting a suppository in a sleeping person kind of invasive).
  • Take your child’s temperature half an hour after you give the tepid bath, use medication, etc. to see if it has gone down. Just as important, note how your child is acting after his or her temperature has gone down. Listless? Perky?

Dr. Meg explained that one reason for the increase in colds and flu (and RSV) during the winter months could be due to low humidity. A study in the journal Environmental Health found that influenza virus cannot live very long if the humidity is between 40%-60%…which, therefore, is probably what you should keep your home humidity level at if you want to provide a less inviting environment for these viruses. Use a humidity monitor if you want to know for sure.

As for humidifiers and vaporizers, cool-mist vaporizers will cool a room. A warm-mist vaporizer is not necessarily germier. Use a vaporizer when your child has croup. I’m still not entirely sure of the difference between humidifiers and vaporizers and when to use either, but that’s because I was distracted by the dessert table and wondering if it would be rude to get up and help myself.

Distracting, right?
You can barely see the chocolate cake in the far right corner of the table,
but it was about 16 layers and pretty damn excellent.

To decrease transmission of viruses such as influenza and RSV, try the following:

  • be clean but not crazy
  • wipe toys with antibacterial cleaners
  • wash your hand and teach your children wash theirs
  • sneeze into your elbow (something I’ve always found gross; I’d rather sneeze into a tissue, frankly, or into my hands and then I’d go wash them. Sometimes when I sneeze, well, sometimes I sneeze something out. Do I want that on my sleeve? But I guess this is a great tip for kids, who will otherwise happily sneeze wherever they are, be it in your face or into the silverware drawer.)
  • change to new toothbrushes monthly
  • have your child use paper cups if he or she is sick
  • use saline drops in your child’s nose nose if he or she is getting sick
  • if your child has a cold or is congested, elevate the head of his or her bed

Most important of all, says Dr. Meg, never parent out of fear. Trust your gut. And don’t leave the doctor’s office until you get an answer.

some of the various Vicks humidifiers and vaporizers

* The lunch was hosted by Vicks. I am not being compensated for this post, even though the cocoa was awesome. And if you click the link, that’s me in the bottom picture, looking tremendously happy as I take my own temperature. That thermometer is super-easy to use, even if you’re all jacked on chocolate!

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