The flu is here, big time. According to the most recent influenza (flu) surveillance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
* 29 states are reporting high activity, 16 are reporting moderate (up from 9 the week before) and 47 say that there are flu cases throughout the state.
* Hospitalizations for flu have doubled since the week before
* 20 children have died from the flu this season
It's time to take this seriously -- and do these five things:
1. Get flu shots -- for yourself and your children.
It's not too late; while the flu shot can take a couple of weeks to really take effect, we've still got a couple of months of flu season ahead of us. It's not 100 percent effective, but hey, when it comes to the flu, any protection is good.
For those of you who say you don't need it because you are healthy, I hope you understand that the flu doesn't discriminate; it's happy to infect anyone. Very young kids are more likely to get complications of the flu (as well as people with health problems and the very old), but anyone can get sick--and anyone can spread it to others. This isn't just about you.
If your children are scared of needles, there is a nasal spray for people ages 2-49 who are healthy (and who don't have close contact with people with severely weakened immune systems). You, yourself, don't even have to get a needle.
For those of you who say that the flu shot makes people sick... while side effects are possible after any vaccine (I felt a bit yucky the day after getting mine), the flu shot can't give you the flu because the virus in it is dead. And the one in the nasal spray is pretty darn close to dead. If people get sick after the flu shot, it's because they caught the flu before it could protect them, or they caught another virus.
2. Wash everyone's hands.
All the time. I mean it. You'd be surprised how much this can cut your risk of infection. Carry hand sanitizer and use it frequently, especially when you are out and about (you just don't know who touched that door handle before you).
Plain old soap and water is fine too--but you need to use plenty of soap and wash for at least 20 seconds (which is about as long as it takes you to sing "Happy Birthday" twice or the alphabet song once).
It's important to remember that most hand sanitizers contain alcohol (apparently some teenagers drink them to get drunk, go figure). If you've got a baby or toddler that always puts their hands in their mouth, you may want to err on the side of soap and water. Carrying wipes with you and using them frequently can help, too, although they may not kill all viruses.
3. Stay away from sick people.
I get that this isn't always easy or even possible. But during flu season, it's totally acceptable to ask about the health of everyone before accepting an invitation (or a playdate) and to tell people they aren't allowed to hold your baby. You are also excused for changing your seat on the train, or leaving a party early. It's always nice to be pleasant, and white lies can help ("Can't afford to miss any work--got a big project due", or "Doctor's orders, sorry"), but sometimes staying healthy is just more important than being polite.
4. Be considerate of others.
This is the flip side of the last one. Please, cover your coughs and sneezes (with a tissue or the inside of your elbow, not your hands). Don't go to work--or to the movies or parties or any other public place you don't absolutely need to go--if you are sick. Don't send your kid to school sick; I know you don't want them to get behind, and it messes up work to keep them home, but it's really unfair to infect other children.
5. If you think you or your kids have the flu, call your doctor.
Note that I said "call." These days, doctors' waiting rooms are one of the best places to catch or give the flu. But do check in with your doctor if you have symptoms of the flu (which include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, muscle aches, headache and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea), to see if you should get antiviral treatment. You probably won't need it, but that's for your doctor to decide--and if you do need it, the sooner you start it the better.
The CDC's flu website has everything you might need or want to know about the flu. You can also find out about flu cases in your area at the Flu Near You website--and find out where to get a flu shot with the Health Map Vaccine Finder (please!).
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire