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Flu season is coming: How to protect your kids from the illness

It’s a few months into the school year. Homework is keeping everyone up too late, the weather is kind of starting to change and flu season is just about here.

It’s an unseasonably warm fall overall, but that doesn’t mean the flu isn’t coming. Education Matters spoke to pediatricians and parents in Los Angeles to ask about their concerns, and to get the medical answers.

Yes, flu season is a thing.

In the summer and fall it’s more common to see enterovirus infections, which cause flu-like symptoms, in addition to vomiting and diarrhea. In the fall and winter, there are more rhinovirus infections, which cause the common cold and cough symptoms. A number of factors probably contribute to why the viruses spread so much during these months: Several respiratory viruses thrive in cold weather, viruses appear in annual cycles, kids might be in closer contact because school has begun, or because they’re kept inside during rain or cold.

Yes, the flu shot might make your kid feel sick. No, it is not the flu.

You are getting injected (or sprayed) with a little bit of the flu. So you or your kid might feel tenderness from the shot, mild body aches, or experience a fever. These symptoms will go away in 24 to 36 hours, though, and they should not be severe.

If your kid actually gets the flu after being immunized, then it’s a coincidence, and they had the virus anyway. The flu shot also makes it less likely that your kid will get more severely sick from those strains of the viruses later in the season, said Dr. Mona Patel, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Sometimes, like last year, the scientists who decide which viruses to vaccinate against are wrong, and your kid might get sick from a different strain. But doctors say it’s more likely that the vaccine will help, so get it. 

How will El Niño affect my child’s health?

Rain is coming, and we Angelenos seem to think it will touch every facet of our lives. Don’t worry. Wet hair doesn’t actually make your kid sick. It is possible that rain outside will force kids to stay indoors, where they’re closer to other kids with less ventilation, which can contribute to the spread of the virus. But viruses mostly spread through contact, and kids are likely to touch other kids if they're playing at recess outside, too.

How can I prevent my kid from getting sick?

1) A lot of sleep

Sleep boosts immunity, and not sleeping enough can make children more susceptible to becoming sick from viruses. 

2) Make them wash their hands.

And not just a cursory wash. They should scrub both sides of their hands with soap for a minute to a minute and a half. They can pass the time by singing “Happy Birthday” twice, or going through the alphabet twice. Kids are most likely to pass sickness onto each other by contact. 

3) A healthful diet

Pumping Emergen-C when you hear a sniffle probably isn’t going to do much. Feed your child a diet full of vegetables and fruits naturally rich in Vitamin C, like kiwi, oranges and strawberries. Preventative vitamins like Emergen-C haven’t been studied for their effect on children, so doctors don’t recommend them.

Hold off on the antibiotics.

OK, now your child is definitely sick, and home from school (because you shouldn't send a sick child to school if you or someone else is able to stay home.)

Antibiotics are only for bacterial infections, which manifest with symptoms like fevers lasting more than five days, ear and throat pain, and trouble breathing, among others. Antibiotics won’t help viral infections. You may think they do, because your kid’s sickness goes away when they take the antibiotics. But respiratory viral infections usually last three to five days, so it’s just running its natural course. All the antibiotic has done is build up your child’s resistance to it, which could harm them when they actually get a bacterial infection.

It is possible that bacterial infections might take hold a little more easily if a child has just been sick, because they have a mildly compromised immunity. So be patient, but do be on the lookout for those symptoms. Ask your doctor about antibiotics if the fever has lasted more than five days, or if a fever subsided and then returned, your child is short of breath or having trouble breathing.

Also, hold off on the cough syrup.

“There’s no medication that treats colds,” said Dr. Dennis Woo, a pediatrician at UCLA Medical Center. Kids under the age of 2 should not be having cough syrup at all, and its effectiveness hasn’t been proved for children under 6, doctors say.

If you really need a way to ease your child’s suffering, try half a teaspoon of honey -- that coats the throat and can help with nighttime coughing. Children younger than one cannot have honey, though.

Hot fluids are fine, and so are cold ones.

Chicken soup isn’t proven to help colds either, but parents don’t want to hear that. It is important to drink fluids when sick to prevent dehydration, though. Fluids can also thin out the mucus and help kids clear it out.

What about West Nile virus?

This is a concern some parents have that’s completely unrelated to flu season. The mosquito-born disease has been in the news lately. Most people who are dying are older, but it’s a good idea to use common preventative measures like keeping your kids inside or more covered at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active. And it’s a good idea to be using mosquito repellent.

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli or by email at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com.

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