Five Ways to Avoid the Flu

It is not new news that the flu is bad news. Influenza has been the bane of human beings for centuries. Witness the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 that killed an estimated 20-50 million people worldwide. (Yes, 20 - 50 MILLION.) Statistics like that are not just something you shrug off. Even if only 20 million died, that’s like a lot, right?  So the flu can be more than an inconvenience; it can be a killer.  What can you do about it?  There are no perfect solutions, but these five tips might help you ward off this year’s version of the flu, which is reported to be especially nasty.

Get a flu Shot

Duh! It seems so simple, but millions each year forego the flu vaccine because it involves an expense, it can be inconvenient and, well, just general inertia. Now, each year’s flu vaccine won’t give you 100 percent protection against the strain or strains of flu that are circulating each year. The flu virus mutates like mad, making the creation of a vaccine to combat it a never-ending activity. But getting the flu shot will be a lot better than not getting the flu shot. Right now it is about 60-70 percent effective in preventing the flu.

Stay away from People

You might think that avoiding obviously sick individuals (we all know a few of them) is a key to avoiding the flu, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. Well, that’s true, but it doesn’t go far enough. Since the flu virus is spread by breathing, unless you typically hang exclusively with zombies, you can contract the virus simply by breathing a particle exhaled by someone else.  (Perhaps zombies breathe but being dead we don’t see why they have to.) You probably like people so it all seems so unfair, because people are everywhere, but that’s the deal.

Hangout with Folks in Surgical Masks

If your are an inveterate people-person (you know who you are) and just can’t stand to forego human interaction in the way us solitary writer-types do on a daily basis, then hang out with folks wearing surgical masks or, better yet, persuade your friends to wear them. You can pretend you are having a theme costume party.  Here’s the weird thing.  The surgical mask will help prevent an infected individual from spreading the flu virus because it keeps the particles usually released by breathing from going out into the atmosphere BUT it won’t do too much to prevent you from inhaling virus-laden stuff in the air.  Why? The spaces around the mask will allow you to breathe in the virus.

Avoid touching hard objects

Yes, this might be more difficult for some of you than others, but an odd, little-known fact is that the flu virus isn’t just in tiny droplets in the air that then drop to the ground harmlessly. No, that pesky virus will live on inanimate objects — pretty much all of your stuff and maybe one or two of your friends — for as long as three days. Even weirder, that creepy virus that does all kinds of bad things to your insides likes the outside of hard surfaces.  So door handles, cabinets, drawers, counter tops can all be harboring little virus bombs that will later explode in your gut. Don’t touch anything hard without wearing gloves might be a rule to live by this winter.

Use Disinfectants on your Hands

Yes, we said that you get the flu by inhaling a dose of the virus, but you can get that virus close enough to breathe if it gets on your hands. So wash ‘em like crazy — you know, a real surgical-prep scrub-in — and use hand sanitizer. We admit it won’t be totally preventative, because we know you, and we know you live and work with other people.  Those people can be infected and pass it on to you. But if you try to keep the virus off your hands and you try to keep your hands out of your mouth and eyes, you’ll be better off than if you didn’t.

And that’s all we’ve got for you. I’m simply going to lock myself away in my bunker for the next four or five months, but that’s just me.  And nobody will ll miss me. Stay flu-free!

Your Home Is Clean … But Is It Healthy?

You've worked tirelessly to make your home a haven for the whole family. But did you know that even the tidiest of homes can play host to troublesome germs and allergens, which can lead to endless sniffles or the common cold?

“That's because your hands are actually the dirtiest surface in your house, and you're responsible for spreading those germs every time you touch the handles, faucets, railings, light switches and microwave buttons," says cleaning expert Don Aslett, author of more than 40 home care books, including the best-selling Clutter's Last Stand.

But not to worry: You can get rid of germs by staying on top of them. Here's your master cleaning schedule for keeping germs at bay to ensure your family's health. Print it out and post it on your fridge to use as a reminder.

1. Kitchen and bathroom sinks and countertops
How often: daily

You touch the faucets in the kitchen each time you cook (and handle raw meat). And in the bathroom, you touch the faucets and countertops just about every time you go into the room. Sinks and drains in these two rooms are home to loads of bacteria, including E. coli.

Spray the faucets, sinks and counters with an antibacterial spray. Let it sit (10 minutes is ideal to kill germs and bacteria), then wipe with a washable microfiber cloth, which is more sanitary than a sponge and traps more than a regular rag would, says Aslett.

2. Clothes, bed linens, kitchen and bathroom towels, and bath mats
How often: every three days

Instead of letting laundry pile up, it's healthier to do it every few days. This helps avoid mold growth in the hamper where moisture can get trapped from soiled clothes and linens. It also helps to get rid of dead skin cells that can become part of house dust and attract dust mites. 

3. Kitchen and bathroom floors, and the toilet seat
How often: twice a week

Believe it or not, there are more germs on the bathroom floor than on the toilet seat. That's because flushing enables microscopic germs to end up on the bathroom floor (and floors are cleaned much less often than toilets). It's good to get into the habit of closing the lid before you flush. Additionally, when you clean, be sure to use a disinfectant to wipe down the seat and lid.

In both the kitchen and the bathroom, mop floors with a bleach-based cleanser. In the kitchen, be sure to clean up food particles and grease, because they can attract unwanted and unhealthy pests.

4. Carpets, cabinets, sofas and mattresses
How often: weekly

Dust mites can cause allergic reactions in some people, so it's important to prevent exposure as much as possible. Dust mites feed on dead skin cells (yours and your pet's), which makes mattresses and pillows some of their favorite hiding places. Protect yourself by wrapping your mattress with a dust-mite-proof cover and vacuum, or wash pillows weekly. If you can live without a feather pillow, switch to one with synthetic material, which is less likely to attract dust mites.

Common household dust doesn't have germs in it since it lacks the moisture that germs require, but it does harbor allergens. Vacuum carpets, soft furnishings and bookshelves weekly (two to three times a week if you have pets) using a machine equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Follow with an antibacterial spray to wipe down all hard surfaces.

5. Tubs, shower stalls and trash cans
How often: weekly

Bathing removes germs and viruses from your body, yes, but not all of them die down the drain. In fact, bacteria thrives in moist environments. Use a disinfecting cleanser once a week to wash the sides and floor of the tub and shower stall and the inside of trash cans. Dry the surfaces with a towel, or leave the door or curtain to the shower open to air-dry.

6. Refrigerator and other appliances
How often: weekly

Clean out the fridge before you go grocery shopping and toss spoiled food and leftovers that have been there for more than a couple of days. Then give all major appliances, including the handles and buttons, a healthy scrub with soap and water or disinfectant spray.

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Stay Healthy With a Sick Kid

When your child sneezes, you:
A.   Run to his aid
B.   Run to the pharmacy
C.   Run for cover

If you wanted to answer A or B, but the truth is closer to C, your instincts are rational: Children bring home as many as 12 colds a year, says Dr. Lauren Feder, author of Natural Baby and Childcare: Practical Medical Advice and Holistic Wisdom for Raising Healthy Children. And one of the fastest ways for them to pass it on to you is through a sneeze, which can send contagious secretions flying at more than 100 miles per hour.

Staying well when your child is sick can be tricky, especially because children can hold on to colds for 10 days."That's sometimes twice as long as an adult," says Dr. Kevin Polsley, a primary care physician at Loyola University Health System. To complicate matters, your child might not show symptoms of a cold until a day or two after contracting the virus."That means you can catch a cold from your child before you even know he has it," says Polsley.

So it's important to fend off colds all season long -- even when you don't think they're in your house. Here's how:

1. Teach cold etiquette.
Show your child how to "catch" a cough or sneeze in her elbow or tissue, and you'll be less likely to catch the germs that lead to a cold, says Feder. Also remind your child to keep her hands away from her face and to dispose of used tissues in the trash.

To further prevent the spread of colds in your home, tell your kids to avoid sharing cups and utensils. (And resist the temptation to take a sip from your child's drink too.)

2. Hum away.
The easiest way for the cold virus to enter your body is through your nose. Humming vibrates your nasal passages and sets the small hairs in your nose, called cilia, into motion."As long as your cilia move, they move any virus out of your nose," says Dr. Murray Grossan, an ear, nose and throat specialist and author of Free Yourself From Sinus and Allergy Problems Permanently.

In fact, one small study conducted by researchers in Texas found that chronic nasal inflammation lessened after one hour of humming at bedtime coupled with humming 60 to 120 times throughout the day. Although that amount may drive you and your family crazy, it can't hurt to try humming a little ditty more often -- especially when your child's wiped out with a bug.

3. Moisturize.
When the temperature falls, so does the humidity in the air, providing the perfect conditions for the cold virus to thrive, says Feder. As nasal passages become dry and even crack, they give easier access to viruses."Our skin is a barrier, and a breach in the skin opens the door to infection," she says.

Using a sinus rinse such as a saline solution three times a week should keep your nasal passages hydrated and help you fend off infection, recommends Feder. Also consider using a humidifier to add moisture to the air.

4. Cover your hands.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be helpful, but only if you use them the right way."If you put just a little on your palms, you could be missing the virus on the backs of your hands or in between your fingers," says Dr. John Maguire, owner of Simplicity Urgent Care in Arlington, Va. Squeeze a dime-sized dollop of sanitizer into the palms of your hands. Rub your hands thoroughly, cleaning the front and back of your hands, as well as between your fingers and beneath your fingernails.

Look for sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol, adds Dr. Joshua Riff, the chief medical director for Target. He suggests placing a bottle by your front door so everyone remembers to sanitize before they go into the house. And when your kid's sick, stash a bottle outside his or her room to keep germs from spreading around the house.

5. Don't forget the water.
Nothing beats a sink with soap for washing away the cold virus before it gets too cozy, says Polsley."If there's visible dirt on your digits, sanitizer won't do the trick." You'll need to lather up and keep your hands under running water for up to 20 seconds (hum the "Happy Birthday" song and you'll get your cilia moving too!).

Make hand-washing part of your family's daily routine: Scrub up when you come home and before every meal. And don't forget to decontaminate your hands every time you wipe your child's runny nose.

6. Treat toys.
If you've got little ones with the sniffles, take care when touching the toys they play with -- you know, the ones they sneeze on. Studies have shown that the cold virus can linger on surfaces for 48 hours or more.

Polsley recommends sterilizing those toys with disinfectant wipes, but first check that the brand you use kills viruses, or it's listed as virucidal against the rhinovirus. Also be sure to wipe down doorknobs, sink and toilet levers, cabinet handles, light switches and remote controls -- anything that is touched frequently by everyone in the house.

Do you let your child stay home from school when he or she has a cold? Tell us in the comments below!

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Why Sniffles Hit Hardest at Night

When your child wakes up coughing or complaining of an earache, it's tough to know what to do. And many common ailments -- from asthma to croup -- worsen in the wee hours.

Lying down plays a role in most colds and sinus symptoms "because it causes secretions to drain into the throat and may obstruct drainage happening during the day," says Dr. Michael Steiner, pediatrician and chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Plus, any pain, discomfort or fever will seem worse when children and parents are tired."

Children may also feel sicker at night because they're less distracted by activities, adds Dr. Mobeen H. Rathore, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Wolfson Children's Hospital and the University of Florida, College of Medicine in Jacksonville.

Learn how to help your little one feel better when he's sick at night, no matter the ailment. Just remember, says Rathore: Call the pediatrician whenever you're unsure or concerned, day or night.

EARACHES
This common childhood pain is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection in the ear (sometimes due to a nasty cold or allergies). Fluid builds up behind the eardrum, and lying down adds pressure to spots that are already sore and inflamed.

Treatment: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 80 percent of children with middle ear infections recover without antibiotics. Shocking, since about 50 percent of antibiotics for American preschoolers are prescribed for ear infections! If the pain isn't severe, help your child feel more comfortable with a pain reliever such as acetaminophen, says Rathore. (Don't use aspirin, which has been associated with a rare but potentially deadly condition called Reye's syndrome.) A warm compress may also help.

When to call the doc: If symptoms get worse or don't improve within 24 to 48 hours, you should consider calling your pediatrician. Chronic ear infections can cause hearing problems, so it's important to monitor symptoms. Red-flag symptoms include severe ear pain and discharge from the ear.

STUFFY NOSE OR SORE THROAT
Symptoms from the common cold tend to flare up at night. "When you lie down, the airways are more likely to become clogged with mucus," says Dr. Neil Schachter, author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu and the Medical Director of the Respiratory Care Department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Treatment: While there is no cure for the common cold, moms can employ a few simple, reliable tactics to help kids feel better. In addition to age-appropriate OTC remedies, a humidifier or steam from a hot shower may also ease congestion so your child can breathe easier. Rathore suggests using acetaminophen to relieve sore throat. Schachter also suggests gargling with salt water before bed "to remove virus-laden mucus from the throat, which relieves both sore throat and coughing."

When to call the doc: Routine colds don't require a doctor's care, but watch out for any other unusual symptoms, including a high fever, distressed breathing or a sore throat that's severe or lasts longer than a week.

CROUP
Most common in children 5 or under, croup causes swelling in the trachea and larynx. It's usually caused by a virus and characterized by a loud, barking cough. "Croup symptoms seem to worsen at night, possibly because the upper airway naturally relaxes during sleep, so it narrows," says Steiner. "It's also possible that using a heater at night dries out the air and makes symptoms worse."

Treatment: Although mist treatment was long thought to manage croup, a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that high humidity didn't seem to help moderate to severe cases. Still, for mild bouts, a warm, steamy bathroom may soothe symptoms. A dose of children's ibuprofen or acetaminophen can bring down swelling of the airways. More severe cases may require a prescription drug to open airways. 

When to call the doc: If your child makes noisy and high-pitched sounds when inhaling, struggles to breathe, develops blue or grayish skin or has a fever of 103.5 F or higher, it's time to see the doctor. Also get in touch if symptoms last longer than a week or are reoccurring.

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How Dads Keep Kids Healthy

It's no surprise that positive parenting affects a child's health and happiness. Countless studies have shown powerful benefits of dad's participation in children's development: Kids of highly involved fathers score better on cognitive tests at 6 months of age, are better problem-solvers as toddlers and have higher IQs by age 3. In school, they get more A’s and perform better on standardized tests. There's an emotional benefit too: These children report feeling less anxious and depressed, and they're more social and empathetic.

But did you know that kids with involved dads are physically healthier too? Studies have shown that kids who live with active, involved fathers are:

  • Less likely to suffer a physical accident
  • Six times less likely to visit the emergency room
  • Up to two times less likely to suffer from asthma
  • More likely to be active -- and four times less likely to be obese by the age of 18 -- than kids with inactive, obese dads

And there are benefits for dad too: Fathers who engage with their kids are more likely to feel more satisfied and empathetic with others, as well as less stressed.

Young kids require lots of attention and love, especially when they're sick. So every day, both mom and dad should make 10 minutes of one-on-one time with their kids a priority. Here are a few smart ways dads can get involved in kids' lives:

Be the chauffeur. There's no easier time for undivided catch-up time with your kids than when you're driving home from school or swim practice. It can become important bonding time during which kids open up about what's going on in their lives. Just make sure to ban cell phones to create an opportunity for meaningful conversation.

Get your hands dirty. Do a little yard work together! Your kids will love mucking around in the mud, and you'll get a helping hand digging up the flowerbeds, raking leaves or scavenging sticks for the fireplace.

Build something. Whether it's a living room fort or a kitchen science experiment, start a project together. While having fun, you'll also create precious memories together: According to Harvard University, the more senses you use, the more involved your brain will be in making a memory (which means your kids are likely to remember the experience).

Experiment in the kitchen. You don't have to be a master chef to cook with your kids. For your next weekend brunch or dinner, mix up boxed pancake batter with blueberries, or concoct an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sandwich together. (Making a mess is the fun part, anyway!)

Read to them. Reading is essential to your child's mental development: As early as the 1960s, studies showed that kids with fathers who regularly read to them were more likely to score better in many important cognitive skill categories -- especially vocab -- than children whose fathers did not. So start at an early age, and do it often.

Tell stories together. Boost your kid's creative juices by telling a story and letting your kid fill in the parts. Play off of each other and, above all, have fun! Research shows that when toddlers chat with their dads, they tend to be more inquisitive and even use a larger vocabulary than when they're talking with moms.

Make a coloring book. If your kid's stuck in bed or if it's a dreary day, make it a bit brighter by sketching the outline of a person or place and asking your kids to fill in the details. If you have a younger kid, draw a full image and give her the crayons to fill your mutual masterpiece.

Share your passion. Whether it's walking your kid through a golf swing or simply explaining why the sky is blue, make sure to discuss the things you love with your kids. They might occasionally roll their eyes ("Dad's at it again!"), but they won't forget those impromptu lessons.

Hug them. Kids need physical attention -- and not just from mom. Snuggle, show affection, love them -- especially when your little one is stuck sick in bed (and all her friends are outside playing).

Moms, encourage dads to get involved. Studies show that when moms are supportive of their spouse’s parenting, men are more likely to be involved and feel more responsible for their kids' well-being. Plus, there’s nothing better than sitting back and watching your family grow closer together. So keep a camera and a box of Puffs tissues at hand and prepare for moving experiences.

-- As told to Colleen Canney, editor and writer