Protecting Your Family During Particularly Bad Flu Season

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This year’s flu season is officially reaching its peak, and this year’s strain of influenza virus is cause for considerable concern, striking with a vengeance not seen in decades. It’s causing more severe illness, more hospitalizations and even more children’s deaths, as parents do what they can to try to protect their kids.

In reality, the strategies being recommended to combat this year’s flu are essentially the same as those employed in years past. While you’re likely to have heard about many of these strategies before, it’s nevertheless useful to remind ourselves of the importance of washing our hands and covering our coughs; getting everyone in the family who is 6 months or older vaccinated; and being on alert for and recognizing early the signs of the flu – such as fatigue, body aches, cough, sore throat and fever – and it’s potential complications, from sinus infections and pneumonia to heart problems, particularly in more vulnerable individuals, like the very young and very old or those with compromised immune systems.

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Now that’s easy to say, and it sounds like easy enough advice to follow. Yet each year I’m left wondering why it is that, as parents, we don’t always feel confident in our approach to fighting the flu. In large part, it’s the fault of the virus responsible for causing the flu. The influenza virus is cunning in its ability to change from year to year, which makes it all the more difficult to protect against.

But I would also suggest that there are some parenting practices and commonly held parenting beliefs that, despite our best intentions, stand to get in the way when it comes to protecting our children, and ourselves, from flu’s wrath.

It’s useful to start with a clear understanding of what “the flu” actually is, and what it isn’t. The flu is caused by a virus, not by bacteria, which means that antibiotics are of no use (except in the case of a secondary infection caused by bacteria, such as bacterial pneumonia).

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The flu is also not the same thing as the common cold. Yes, both are common and the result of viruses capable of causing symptoms such as fever, cough and headache. But the flu is caused by influenza viruses. Unlike common colds and other respiratory viruses, we have the benefit of a vaccine that helps protect against the flu. That is, it helps protect those of us who opt to get it. And it’s still worth getting your family vaccinated if you haven’t already.

With respect to the flu vaccine, parents are sometimes faced with what could be considered a “nothing but the best” problem. It’s only natural to want the best for our children, and to be willing to settle for nothing less. But while this parenting instinct can serve our children well in many contexts, when applied to the flu vaccine, it proves potentially problematic. That’s because the flu vaccine varies from year to year in its ability to prevent us from getting the flu.

This year’s vaccine serves as a clear case in point, as its effectiveness has been estimated to be as low as 30 percent. Presented with an admittedly imperfect vaccine, far too many parents are unfortunately tempted to opt for nothing. Remaining committed to a “nothing but the best” approach and choosing to get this year’s flu vaccine are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. Getting vaccinated is still the single best way to protect against influenza and reduce the risk of becoming sick from it.

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That brings us to another potential flu-related parenting challenge: our protective parenting instincts. While the flu vaccine does, in fact, offer protection (albeit at varying levels from year to year), our protective instincts tend to operate on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind basis, prioritizing those “risks” that we can clearly see. In other words, we tend to prioritize what we perceive as immediate, visible threats over those we can’t see. In the case of the flu, it’s all too easy to focus on such aspects as our children’s feear of shots and needles, while overlooking the potential risk and severity of getting sick with the flu. That is, until a year like this one comes along when we are all hopefully reminded of what w all have to fear from influenza viruses, as well as the many steps we can take to protect ourselves and our families from flu’s wrath.