How Can I Keep the Flu Away?

Dear Mamas,
My toddler is 2 1/2, and in this flu season I’m freaked out about how to protect him from bugs of all kinds! After all, how often can you ask a 2-year-old to wash his hands? Use hand sanitizing gel? Stay away from other toddlers who are sneezing? It seems like the recommendations I’m hearing don’t really apply to the little ones. What do I do?
Crazy Confused

Dear Confused,

You’re not the only one! A nurse in my local school district recently told me that she’s going nuts trying to figure out what the rules are, and how to apply them. It seems like you have to work for the CDC to truly understand the new normal. But there ARE some common-sense guidelines to follow that will help keep your little guy healthy.

First, keep in mind that your son’s exposure isn’t the same as yours. He’s probably not shaking a lot of hands or opening a lot of public restroom doors. He IS touching everything he can reach and putting lots of things in his mouth. So think about those patterns and decide when the need for clean-up is greatest, and when some things (like the ball room at Chuck E. Cheese) can simply be avoided.

Wash his hands after he’s been at the store or the park or other public places. Think twice before you put him in that grocery cart where the handle is at perfect mouth level. How many hands touched that today? And if he’s already at the age where pressing the button in an elevator is a huge thrill, challenge him to try pushing it with his knuckle, or better yet, his elbow!

An important note of caution comes from a story I heard recently about a 1-year-old who suddenly became seriously ill and was taken to the emergency room. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong in spite of every conceivable lab test and imaging scan. Finally, after hours of questions, it became clear that his mom had been cleaning his hands with hand sanitizing gel over and over again — like every hour.

Well this little guy, like every teething toddler, was putting his hands in his mouth and licking that stuff off, toxins and all. He ingested so much that it made him REALLY sick. Fast forward to the happy ending … he’s fine and his mom put away the Purell. Now she uses baby wipes (they’re non-toxic) when they’re away from home, or carries soapy wipes in a ziplock bag. Hand sanitizers were developed for adults, and are NOT safe for babies and toddlers who put everything in their mouths.

And of course, stay home if you have symptoms of the flu (fever, sore throat, body aches). Encourage other moms to keep THEIR darlings home if they have symptoms. This isn’t the time to share snot at the Wednesday play group, even if you ARE dying to see your friends and dish about who got voted off American Idol.

We’re all in this together and the experts are learning more every day. Do what’s smart, don’t panic, and stay well.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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