That’s right – early autumn marks the start of cold and flu season. So Margaret Khoury, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and the regional lead of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Flu Vaccination Program, is encouraging parents to protect their children against the flu before the end of October.
“Every year, around Halloween, we begin to see an increase in upper respiratory illnesses in children,” says Dr. Khoury. “The reasons are multifold. As the days begin to cool down, viruses like the rhinovirus – the virus that causes the common cold – begin to replicate. Cooler weather also tends to keep people indoors, thus increasing a person’s exposure to germs and ultimately, increasing their risk of illness.”
Dr. Khoury adds that there are some Halloween-specific reasons people also become ill at this time of year.
“Keep in mind that flu and cold germs spread from person to person by way of coughing, sneezing or simply talking. When we attend gatherings – including Halloween parties – we risk being in close contact with others who may be ill. So, if your child is feeling sick, it’s best that he or she stay home. Not only will rest help him or her feel better, but it will also protect other children from becoming ill. Last, while one late night out may not do much harm, it’s important that we ensure our children are getting a good night’s rest every night. Lack of sleep can weaken a child’s immune system.”
In addition, says Dr. Khoury, it’s especially important for children who suffer from chronic respiratory conditions, like asthma, to stay healthy. Both a cold and the flu can trigger an asthma attack, cause shortness of breath, lead to serious infections like pneumonia, or result in other life-threatening complications.
The best way to ward off the flu? Get flu shots for you and your family. It can take up to two weeks for the body to develop immunity, so it’s important to vaccinate as early in the season as possible. Also, when shopping for that perfect costume, take advantage of the time to review germ prevention strategies with your children. This includes avoiding touching their eyes, nose or mouth. They should also wash their hands frequently – and if soap and water are not available, encourage children to use an alcohol-based hand gel.
“I tell kids to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice,” says Dr. Khoury. “I also tell them to cough – or sneeze – into their arm like Dracula.”