Colorful leaves and crisp air form a beautiful backdrop for the many outdoor activities of fall. But before long, cold weather will send us all indoors where the close quarters help spread germs and increase our risk for illness.
To help you prepare and protect your personal health, Ready Georgia recently spoke with Dr. James Fortenberry, pediatrician-in-chief with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and a professor of pediatric critical care at Emory University School of Medicine. Read on for Dr. Fortenberry’s take on the season ahead.
RG: Is there an “official start date” to flu season? When should parents begin to watch for signs of flu?
No, there isn’t an official start date for flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) most closely monitors flu activity from October through mid-May, and those are the months to be most concerned about contracting the illness. However, in 2009 when the H1N1 flu was so prevalent, cases began to occur in July and August, which caught many people by surprise.
RG: Are we seeing any signs that this will be an active flu season?
Sometimes flu activity in the southern hemisphere can give us an indication of what to expect when winter arrives in the northern hemisphere. We haven’t heard anything that indicates this will be an unusually active flu season, but I would still urge everyone to prepare as if it will be. There’s really no way to know what the season will hold, so it’s always best to get a flu vaccination and take precautions to prevent your exposure.
RG: That’s good advice. So what are some everyday steps that we can take to prevent the flu?
The number one thing is to pay very close attention to hand washing. That’s a good habit to have every day of the year, but especially during flu season. Wash well with soap and water, especially after handling items from other family members. Ask your children to wash their hands as soon as they arrive home from school. Consider adding a small bottle of hand sanitizer to your kids’ backpacks, and remind the caregivers at your child’s daycare or nursery to use hand sanitizer as well.
Avoiding known ill contacts is another good preventative action. Of course, the problem is that by the time a person shows that they’re sick they’ve been incubating the virus for several days and they were contagious. It’s an imperfect world. You can’t prevent every exposure, but you can minimize them and you can avoid picking up those viruses easily by hand washing.
RG: Who should get the flu vaccine and where can you get it? Also, are there any side effects?
The very young and the very old are at highest risk. That was one unusual thing about the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 — pregnant women seemed to be at much higher risk. But typically it’s children and the elderly. The other big population at risk is the immune suppressed, such as cancer patients.
Children who have chronic respiratory problems – asthma, cystic fibrosis and other conditions — should always get vaccinated. They are at risk to have a much worse go of it if they get the flu.
And it’s important to remember that children are very likely to get the flu from a family member or sibling, so make sure everyone gets immunized.
RG: Do you have any tips on how to care for flu-stricken family members without getting sick?
Isolate them within the home if at all possible. Don’t share dishes, glasses, or any items like that. Wash your hands frequently.
RG: Before we wrap up our conversation, could you give us an update on whooping cough? Drug stores are advertising the availability of that vaccine, which seems like a recent development.
There has been a resurgence in the number of kids contracting pertussis, or whooping cough. Georgia has had twice the normal number of cases, and at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta we’ve had a number of kids really sick with it. Several of those kids were too young to get the pertussis immunization, which comes at two months old. Pertussis causes a chronic cough in older patients, but it is life threatening in infants.
Pertussis is relatively common in adults because the immunity that they had from childhood vaccinations wanes over time. That’s why you’ve seen those signs encouraging adults to get immunized. By immunizing adults we are protecting the health of infants who are too young to be immunized. In fact, my first piece of advice for my daughter-in-law who is pregnant with her first child was to get a pertussis booster. It is very important if you are – or will be — a father or mother of an infant. Grandparents and anyone who has regular contact with infants should get immunized as well.
RG: Thank you so much, Dr. Fortenberry, for giving us some practical tips for handling flu season.
Image credit: Autumn Joy by Flickr user dubh.