By Harley Rotbart, MD
We value our children's participation in team sports for many reasons, including the camaraderie it breeds. Unfortunately, this time of year camaraderie can breed colds and flu, too. And it's tough to be a valuable teammate when you're sick.
The 2012-13 flu season is well underway, and it's been severe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity has been quite high across most of the United States as of mid-January - and it doesn't appear to be ebbing anytime soon.
Your young athlete is vulnerable to the flu, especially if he or she is practicing and playing on a team. Germs can easily spread among teammates via high-fives, shared water bottles and un-covered coughing.
According to non-profit advocacy group Families Fighting Flu, a particularly onerous flu season like this one can result in as many as 30 percent of school-aged children getting sick. They collectively miss millions of school days - not to mention their sporting events and other extracurricular activities.
Five prevention tips
So what can you do to help keep your superstar in the game and off the sidelines? Here are five fast tips to help keep the flu at bay.
- Vaccinate! The first step in protecting against the flu is to get the flu vaccine. If you haven't already done so this year, it's not too late to get everyone in your family vaccinated. The CDC recommends that all healthy children, over the age of six months, get vaccinated. Not sure where to go? Visit this easy-to-use online flu vaccine locator at http://flushot.healthmap.org/.
- No sharing! I know, I know ... you've been trying for years to get your kids to share. But it's not a good idea during flu season. Germs that cause colds and flu are easily spread, as they can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours. Insist that your kids only use their own water bottles, and don't borrow an already opened one from a teammate. And in case a friend runs out of water, pack a few extra disposable bottles in your kid's equipment bag. (See, they can share after all!).
- Look Ma, No Hands! While the high-five hand slap is a longstanding celebratory tradition, suggest that your player try a hands-free version. Foot taps or a leaping shoulder-to-shoulder bump are equally fun and much safer since they lower the chance of passing along germs. And when they line up to shake hands with the opposition after the game, an elbow bump is much better than a palm slap. Just to be extra safe, keep a bottle of alcohol hand sanitizer in your kids' sports bag for them to use after the game - whether they've high-fived or not.
- Wipe It Up! Using an EPA-registered disinfectant to wipe down hard surfaces and plastic equipment like hockey sticks, face masks and shin guards will help kill viruses and bacteria. You can also donate canisters of disinfecting wipes to your child's coach or trainer so that they have them handy to use as well. Many coaches use their own money for supplies, so a flu season care package with hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and tissues will be greatly appreciated!
- Creative Coughing and Musical Washing! While you certainly want your child to "cover up" when coughing or sneezing, viruses cling tightly to bare hands. Teach kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow. When they get home, especially before their snack, make sure they wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds...or the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
Other prevention tips
Off the field, a number of factors can lessen the likelihood that your all-star will be knocked out by the flu. Most important are a healthy diet of nutritious food (rich in vitamin C), good hydration, plenty of sleep, and bundling up to fit the weather (yes, Grandma was right!). If their bodies are weary or chilled, they are much more vulnerable to illness - but the right food, proper clothing, hydration and rest can help strengthen the immune system.
Take charge, Mom. Coach your kids to follow these tips so their sports seasons are less likely to be disrupted by the flu.
Harley Rotbart, M.D., is a nationally-renowned parenting expert, pediatrician, speaker and educator. He serves on the advisory boards of Parents Magazine and Parents.com, and previously was a member of the advisory board of Children's Health Magazine. Dr. Rotbart has been named to Best Doctors in America every year since 1996, and has received numerous other national awards for research, teaching and clinical work. He is the author of: No Regrets Parenting; Germ Proof Your Kids; and, The On Deck Circle of Life, as well as more than 175 medical and scientific publications. Dr. Rotbart is currently working with Clorox to share tips for preventing the flu.