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Talking with Children about Flu

Resources About H1N1 (Swine Flu)

With so much media coverage about both seasonal and H1N1 (swine) flu, it is likely that children will have concerns about how the flu affects them, their friends, and family. Here are some tips to help you minimize your children’s fears while also helping them stay healthy.

What to Say

Find out what they know

Ask your child to tell you what he or she already knows about the topic. Having your child tell you, instead of you telling them about it, lets you know what misconceptions or misunderstandings you may need to address.

Explain the facts

Your child may have a lot of questions. Clearing up your child’s confusion and providing the facts may make him or her less worried.

Tailor the information to your child’s developmental level, using words you know he or she will understand. 

  • For example, you may want to explain that H1N1 flu is very contagious, which is why people are taking special precautions like coughing and sneezing into their elbows and sleeves.
  • You also may want to explain that H1N1 is sometimes called “swine” flu because when it was first discovered scientists thought that it came exclusively from swine (pigs). They now understand that this flu is a mix of viruses.
  • Be sure to explain that people catch H1N1 flu from other people, just as they can catch seasonal flu from other people, which is why it is important to wash your hands.
  • Be sure to explain that doctors are working to protect everyone, and will be ready to treat children and families as the flu spreads this season.  

Talk about hygiene

Having a discussion about flu provides an excellent opportunity to reinforce good hygiene practices, as they will not only help protect a child during a flu pandemic, but will also keep him or her healthier in general.

  • Teach your child to wash hands frequently. The correct way to wash hands is to rub them vigorously together for 20 seconds using soap and water. Explain that 20 seconds is the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song two times. Explain that hands pick up invisible little germs that can make people sick. The germs get inside when they touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. Washing with soap and water gets rid of the germs before those germs can make them sick.
  • Another option for cleaning hands is to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Sanitizers with at least 70% isopropyl alcohol or 60% ethyl alcohol are effective. Be sure to tell your child to not eat or lick the sanitizer gel as it is not safe to ingest.
  • Teach your children to cover coughs and sneezes with tissues. Explain that the germs are caught in the tissue and can’t get out where they can make other people sick. Make sure they know that they should throw away the tissue in a garbage can and then wash their hands. Since many children do not carry tissues, you may want to remind them that if they have no tissue, it is ok to sneeze or cough into their elbow, so their hands don’t get dirty and so the germs do not spread into the air.
  • Teach your children to be careful not to get too close to others if he or she feels sick, or near someone else who feels sick.
  • Teach your child to practice good general health habits that help them stay healthy, like eating a balanced diet, exercising, and getting enough rest.

Flu Vaccine

This year, there are two types of flu vaccines, one for the seasonal flu, and one for H1N1. Both types of vaccines have been tested and are safe and effective in children and adults.

  • Explain that that the H1N1 vaccine is new, but that it is very similar to the seasonal vaccine that many people get every year.
  • If your child needs more than one injection, be sure to explain what they can expect.
  • If you need to return to your doctor’s office for one or the other vaccination, be sure to explain to your child that because the new H1N1 vaccine is being released in stages, it may be that your doctor recommends getting the vaccines when they are available, rather than trying to get them both on the same day.
  • Explain that even parents and other family members need to get vaccinated to keep the whole family and anyone living in the same house healthy.

If Your Child Gets Sick

If your child gets sick, you may want to help them understand how long he or she will be sick and what to expect.

  • Explain that most people who get the flu recover at home in 5 to 7 days.
  • Explain to your child that you will need to take their temperature regularly.
  • Reassure your child that you and any other caregivers in the family will take care of him or her and will be sure to call a doctor if needed.

If your child is home sick, or if friends are sick and cannot participate in normal activities, you may want to have games, activities, and ways to communicate with friends (like over e-mail) ready for your children to make the time spent confined at home less stressful. Providing developmentally appropriate art, play, and other expressive activities can assist your child to express how he or she feels and improve your communication with each other and also provide entertainment or distraction while home.

You may want to refer to Children’s National Seasonal Flu and H1N1 (Swine) Flu
Information for Parents for information about how to treat your child at home and to be sure you know when to call a doctor for guidance. You also may want to print out Children’s Flu Check List for Parents and Caregivers.

Stay Informed of Recent Developments

Related links

 Flu Resource Center 
 Facts about Flu Vaccinations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) **NEW** - 10/14/09
 Season and H1N1 (Swine) Flu Referral Guidelines (PDF) **NEW** - 10/13/09
 Flu Check List for Parents and Caregivers (PDF) **New** - 10/06/09
 Seasonal Flu and H1N1 (Swine) Flu Information for Parents **NEW**- 10/05/09
Centers for Disease Center - 2009 H1N1 Flu/ Swine Flu information
Helping kids cope with being in the hospital
Helping Siblings Cope with a Brother’s or Sister’s Hospitalization
 Article: Pediatrics: Kids need specialized care in hospital emergency departments (September 2009)
 Article:Volunteers Wanted to Test Swine Flu Vaccine (ABC News, July 22, 2009)
 Article: All Hands on Deck For Anticipated Swine Flu Surge (ABC News, July 23, 2009)
 Article: Children’s Chief Medical Officer discusses H1N1 planning on World News with Charles Gibson

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