Keep children healthy this winter season

Anne Christian, MD Enlargephoto

Anne Christian, MD

Flu season is off to an earlier than usual start this year with large numbers of cases being reported around the country. The flu is not prevalent in unusually high numbers in Montezuma County, but it's early in the season and the flu vaccine is still available and highly recommended. It takes the vaccine about two weeks to take effect, so the sooner you get the vaccine, the better, if you've not already done so.

The flu can be especially dangerous for small children, and Cortez pediatrician Anne Christian, MD, has tips for parents and caregivers of kids to help prevent the spread of the flu and keep the little ones healthy in general throughout the winter months. "I'm not seeing huge numbers of flu cases yet this year but I have had to hospitalize two children for the illness," said Christian.

If you've not yet had your children vaccinated for the flu, it's not too late. "In our clinics we have preservative-free vaccines that contain no mercury and are safe for any child over the age of six months," said Christian. She recommends that everyone in households with young children - especially those under six months old - get vaccinated. "This provides protection for the very young infants who can't get the vaccine," said Christian.

If a child (or an adult) begins to have flu-like symptoms they should see their healthcare provider as quickly as possible. "Tamiflu is an antiviral medication that blunts the severity of the symptoms and shortens the duration of the flu, but it needs to be given within 48 hours of exposure to the virus," said Christian. Tamiflu is safe for children one year and older.

Another illness common in the winter months is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). It typically causes mild cold-like symptoms in adults and healthy children, but it can be quite dangerous for babies and children with compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses such as asthma. Because it is a virus (like the flu and the common cold), antibiotics are not used in treating RSV. Most cases resolve without treatment but serious cases may require hospitalization for the administration of oxygen and IV fluids.

"I'm seeing a high number of respiratory illnesses and quite a few cases of viruses that are causing vomiting and diarrhea," said Christian, noting that sometimes RSV and other respiratory illnesses have a gastrointestinal component.

There are many common-sense measures that parents can take to keep children - and the whole family - healthy during the winter months when viruses tend to peak. "Frequent hand washing is a very important preventive measure that everyone can take," said Christian. Thirty to sixty seconds of hand washing with warm, soapy water followed by thorough drying can go a long way toward preventing the spread of many infections. "I recommend that parents wash their hands frequently, especially when caring for sick children, before preparing food, and after diaper changes," said Christian. Parents should teach their children the importance of frequent and thorough hand washing as well. When soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Keeping children home from school and day care when they are sick is the responsible thing to do to keep illnesses from spreading to other children, teachers, and caregivers. Anyone who has had the flu should stay at home for 24 hours after their temperature has returned to normal without the use of fever-reducing medications.

"Reschedule play dates if your child is sick or another child is showing symptoms of illness," said Christian. To the greatest degree possible, don't take small babies to public places and keep all children away from family members and friends who are ill. "Even a sneeze by someone nearby can make a child sick," said Christian. "The checkout line at Walmart is probably not the healthiest place to be during cold and flu season." When you need to sneeze or cough cover your nose and mouth with several tissues or sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm rather than into bare hands.

Everyone, but especially children, should get plenty of rest during the winter months to help ward off illnesses. Christian also recommends vitamin supplements, specifically A, C, and D, along with eating dark berries for their antioxidant benefits. "Parents should talk to their children's doctor about the possibility of probiotic supplements as well," said Christian.

Keeping children away from second-hand cigarette smoke is essential to keeping them healthy year-round, and even more so in the winter months. Also, making sure that kids stay well-hydrated is important. "Hydration helps stabilize the temperature and keep the metabolism working well," said Christian.

Be certain that children are appropriately dressed when they go outside to play and when temperatures are extremely low, outdoor time should be both monitored and limited. Keeping children warm is important, but don't load them up with too many layers of clothing. Overdressing, especially in babies under a year of age, is associated with SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), according to Christian.

Preventing the spread of colds, the flu, and other wintertime illnesses is everyone's responsibility. "Do your part to stay healthy and keep others from getting sick," said Christian. "I love caring for children in my office, but I'd much rather be seeing them for their well-child checkups than treating them for illnesses that could have been prevented."

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal healthcare provider.

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