Protecting Against Influenza (Flu): Advice for Caregivers of Young Children
Children younger than 5 years of age – especially those younger than 2 years old – are at high risk of serious flu-related complications. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized due to flu complications each year in the United States. Many more have to go to a doctor, an urgent care center, or the emergency room because of flu.
Complications from the flu in this age group can include pneumonia (an illness where the lungs get infected and inflamed), dehydration (when a child's body loses too much water and salts, often from not drinking enough fluids/liquids), worsening of long-term medical problems like heart disease or asthma, encephalopathy (inflammation of the brain), sinus problems and ear infections. In rare cases, flu complications can lead to death.
To help prevent getting the flu, CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a yearly flu vaccine. Getting a yearly vaccine is especially important for young children because they are at increased risk of getting severe illness from flu.
Children younger than 6 months are at high risk of serious flu complications, but are too young to get a flu vaccine. Children younger than 6 months have the highest risk for being hospitalized from flu compared to children of other ages. Because children younger than 6 months cannot get a vaccine, protecting them from influenza is especially important. This fact sheet provides advice to help caregivers (for example, parents, teachers, babysitters, nannies) protect young children from the flu.
1. Take Time to Get a Vaccine
- A flu vaccine is the first and best way to protect against the flu.
- If the child you care for is 6 months or older, they should get a flu vaccine each year.
- Infants younger than 6 months are at high risk for serious flu-related complications, but cannot get a vaccine.
- As a caregiver to a young child, you should get a flu vaccine, and make sure that others in the household also get vaccinated each year. By getting vaccinated, you will be less likely to get the flu and therefore less likely to spread the flu to the child.
2. Take Everyday Preventive Actions
Certain everyday preventive actions – like covering your cough and frequent hand washing – can help keep germs from spreading.
Protect yourself and your infant by routinely taking these actions:
- Keep yourself and the child in your care away from people who are sick as much as you can.
- If you get the flu or flu symptoms, avoid contact with other people, including the child in your care, so that you don't make them sick.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze—throw the tissue away after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. If you are not near water, use an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs often spread this way.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, especially when someone is ill.
3. Antiviral Drugs Can Treat Flu Illness
- Antiviral drugs are available to treat flu in children and adults.
- Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics. They are prescription medicines (pills, liquid or an inhaled powder).
- Antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They also may prevent serious flu complications.
- Treating people who are very sick with flu or who have a high risk factor with flu antiviral drugs can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.
- Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within 2 days of getting sick, but starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high-risk health condition or is very sick from the flu. Follow your doctor's instructions for taking these drugs.
- Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.
If you live with or care for a young child and you get the flu or get symptoms of the flu, follow the precautions below to help prevent the spread of illness to the child in your care.
1. Remember How the Flu Spreads
Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.
2. Follow These Steps
If you get flu symptoms – which can include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, or sometimes vomiting and diarrhea – follow the precautions below:
- Check with your doctor or other health care professional. (If you have influenza, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications for you.)
- Try to minimize contact with the child in your care as much as possible.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, and put your used tissue in a waste basket.
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner frequently and as soon as possible if you have sneezed or coughed on your hands.
- Before engaging in any activity within about 6 feet of the child in your care (including feeding, changing, rocking, reading to your child) thoroughly wash and dry your hands. See more information about hand hygiene and Good Health Habits for Preventing Seasonal Flu.
- If the child in your care is younger than 6 months, or older than 6 months and unvaccinated, they are very vulnerable to the flu. Be especially careful to follow these steps around them.
- Take these precautions while you have flu symptoms and for 24 hours after your symptoms clear up.
3. Be Watchful
Observe the child in your care closely for symptoms of respiratory illness. If your child develops a fever*, respiratory symptoms, or is less responsive than normal, contact your child's doctor. If your child does become ill with flu, the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) is approved to treat influenza illness in infants aged 2 weeks and older.
*Many authorities use either 100 (37.8 degrees Celcius) or 100.4 F (38.0 degrees Celsius) as a cut-off for fever, but this number actually can range depending on factors such as the method of measurement and the age of the person, so other values for fever could be appropriate. CDC has public health recommendations that are based on the presence (or absence) of fever. What is meant by this is that the person's temperature is not elevated beyond their norm.