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Fever. Chills. Coughing. Sneezing. Sore throat. Yes, it's flu season. But the 2014 flu season is different because it's shaping up to be one of the worst in years.
The flu has spread to over 80 percent of the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with 41 states reporting outbreaks. Boston's mayor even declared a state of emergency after 700 confirmed cases of flu -- ten times the number the city reported last year.
But the good news is that there's a lot you can do to keep your family healthy. Here's what you need to know about this year's deadly outbreak.
Get vaccinated. The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year, according to the CDC. The flu vaccine protects against several strains of the flu, including H1N1, the swine flu. Every member of your family who is over 6 months of age should get vaccinated every year (see the current vaccine schedule here) -- that means kids, parents and caregivers. Protection from the vaccine only lasts for six to 12 months -- and the strains the vaccine protects against can vary, so an annual vaccine is key. (Talk to an allergist before getting the shot if your child has a history of severe egg allergy.)
It's especially important that anyone who spends time around your baby get immunized since babies under 6 months are too young for the vaccine. That's one reason it's also critical that pregnant women get vaccinated: Not only does it protect the mom-to-be (who is more vulnerable to the flu during pregnancy), but it can provide six months of protection to a baby, until the baby is old enough to get a flu shot. (Any child under 8 who has not received a total of two flu vaccines since July 1, 2010 should receive two doses of the flu vaccine, according to the AAP. Kids who have received two doses in prior years only need one dose.)
Stay home. The flu is contagious, so don't send the kids to school until a fever has disappeared for at least a day. Your child's fever should not return at least 24 hours after you stop giving fever meds such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Wash your hands -- a lot -- to prevent the spread of germs. According to the AAP, you can teach the kids to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice while you scrub with warm water and soap. Have an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on hand for times when you're not near a sink.
Control the germs. Teach kids to cough and sneeze into their elbows or upper sleeves if a tissue isn't near by, the AAP advises -- and if they do use a tissue, make sure they toss it in the garbage immediately. Wiping doorknobs, countertops, toys, toilet handles and cellphones with a disinfectant wipe or soapy cloth can help, too.
Call the doctor. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the flu from the common cold, but the AAP says to call your pediatrician if your child has flu symptoms and looks really sick; is 3 months or younger with a fever; is having troubled or fast breathing; is sleepier than normal; is very fussy; won't drink; or is peeing very little. And if your kid's symptoms continue to worsen, her skin turns blue in color or she won't wake up, head straight to the ER.
Ask about treatment early. Antiviral drugs can help decrease the severity of the flu, especially in kids at high risk for complications, but it's most effective if given within the first day or two of becoming ill, according to the AAP. That's why it's key to call your doctor within 24 hours if you notice symptoms -- especially if your child has a health condition such as asthma or diabetes or is under 6 months of age.
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