Practical at home tips for illnesses

When your family gets sick, what can you do before running to the ER or clinic?

When cold and flu season is in full gear, it’s helpful to know common things that can help us prevent and treat whatever is in town. Many of the viruses that run around each season don’t have specific treatments, but there are things that we can do at home to treat symptoms and keep people more comfortable. There are also things we can all do to prevent the spread to other family members or back into our community.

What can be done to feel better?

Remember that nothing can be done to treat most viruses. Our body’s immune system will take care of that, but we can do things that help us feel better during the illness.

It’s hard to make them better, but we can make them feel better

Most cough and colds last several weeks. Vomiting and diarrhea can last a couple weeks as well.

During the cold and flu season, it can seem like kids are sick every day for months because they catch one on top of the other. Some of these days they might simply have a runny nose, and those days can last most of the year in young kids.

It’s when they seem uncomfortable or distressed that we need to do more. Treat the symptoms that bother them.

Identify the symptoms that are concerning, such as difficulty breathing or dehydration, and seek treatment at your doctor’s office for those.

What about fever?

Notice I did not list fever as one of those symptoms.

Doctors don’t do anything special for fever in vaccinated children over 2 months of age.

Fever can accompany other symptoms that may be concerning, but it in itself is not the concern unless it is a newborn, unvaccinated child, or one with a chronic condition that you’ve been warned has increased risks.

Comfort measures

Pain control with acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be helpful. Follow the package directions for weight. Dosing for kids under 2 years of age can be found on my office website or you can ask your physician.

Remember the goal is not to bring temperatures to normal, but to keep kids comfortable. If they’re in pain from sinus pressure, a headache, sore throat, body aches, or earaches, it is okay to give a pain reliever even with a normal temperature.

Get the mucus out

Suction your infant’s nose before feeding and before putting him down to sleep. This helps clear the mucus from the airway and makes breathing easier. Encourage nose blowing for those old enough to know how to blow.

Use saline to irrigate the nose. They sell drops, sprays, and nasal wash systems to be used, depending on age and personal preference. 

Hydrate

Encourage your family members over 6 months of age to drink more water than normal when sick. Kids often won’t eat well when they’re sick. That’s okay. It is important that they drink well though so they can stay hydrated.

Young infants should not drink water, but you can encourage more of their milk or formula when they have cough and colds.

If your child has vomiting or diarrhea, avoid cow’s milk products. These often lead to more vomiting. Breast milk can be offered in small amounts frequently to infants who are breastfeeding. Electrolyte solutions (with sugars and salts) can be given to infants and children for hydration.

Clean air

DO NOT let anyone smoke around your child or in your home. Smoke can make the wheezing and coughing worse, even if done in a separate room in the home.

Smoke residue on hair and clothing can cause irritation to your child’s airways. I can usually identify smokers or people who spend time with smokers when they’re in my clinic. (Thankfully that isn’t often.) It isn’t unusual for me to start coughing when they’re in a clinic room with me. If you must smoke, go outside and wear a jacket that can be removed to minimize what is on your shirt when you go inside and hold your baby.

I’ve even started coughing when around someone who was vaping. I know people claim that the vapor is safe around others, but my lungs don’t like it. Keep it away from your kids. Talk to your kids about the risks of vaping so they don’t start the habit.

Rest

Encourage those who are sick to get extra rest. We often sleep poorly at night and need daytime naps to get enough sleep when we’re sick. 

Dry air

A cool mist vaporizer or humidifier can help your child breathe easier. Change the water every day. Clean the machine per the manufacturer recommendations. 

Infection control

It just isn’t possible to keep kids from being contagious when they have a virus. They love to touch everything and share germs, so keep them home until they’re well enough to return to normal daily activities.

Stay home!

Our health department now recommends that everyone with influenza stays home for 7 days following the start of symptoms.

How long should you stay home? It varies by illness. www.questforhealthkc.com

You can return to work, school, and activities with other illnesses when the fever is gone (without using fever reducers) for 24 hours, there’s no vomiting or diarrhea, and you’re generally feeling well enough to return. If not, stay home and rest or visit your doctor.

Cover the cough!

Cover your cough properly - don't use your hands! www.questforhealthkc.com

Teach kids to sneeze and cough into their elbow or a tissue. Wash hands after handling tissues. 

Wash, wash, wash

Good handwashing can help decrease the spread of viruses.

Wash hands often. If soap and water isn’t available, use hand sanitizer. The more things you touch, the more often you should wash.

Teach kids to wash properly. Have them rub soap on their hands for 15 – 20 seconds- be sure they scrub palms, backs of hands, fingers, spaces between the fingers and even under the fingernails. 

Wash

  • Before preparing food
  • After toileting or changing a diaper
  • When they’re obviously soiled
  • Before eating
  • After sneezing or coughing into hands or wiping nose
  • Before and after touching eyes
  • When taking care of a wound wash your hands before and after washing and treating the wound
  • Often when taking care of someone who is sick
  • After touching trash or soiled objects

Consider having separate towels for each family member in your bathrooms to decrease the spread of germs when they wipe their mouth after brushing their teeth.

Hand sanitizer is a good option when washing isn’t available, but it is not helpful against some germs, so handwashing is preferred.

Use lotion as needed to keep your skin moisturized. Dry skin damages the barrier that helps prevent germs from getting into our bodies.

Germs can live on objects and surfaces for 2 or 3 hours – sometimes longer. Clean your child’s toys often with soap and water.

Don’t touch your face. Eyes, ears, and noses are the doors into our body.

Avoid handshakes and other hand to hand contact. Try a fist bump or wave!

Help prevent the spread of germs. Don't shake hands. Offer a fist bump or wave. #infectionpreventiontip

Avoid taking young children to large groups of people during the cold and flu season, especially if people are showing signs of illness.

Vaccinate.

We can help prevent many of the most serious illnesses by staying up to date on our vaccines.

Everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu vaccine. There are very few contraindications to a flu vaccine and many benefits. Really.

And finally… avoid kisses that spread illness!

For more:

Fever Is

When is a fever too high

Tamiflu

Evolution of illness

Cough Medicine: which one’s best?

Cough sounds

How long will a cough or cold last?

RSV has a bad rap… for good reason

Strep throat: new school guidelines

Sore throat: strep vs viral

How to use nose sprays correctly

Improper use of antibiotics

Why wait to see your usual doctor?

It’s not the flu!

I was at the gym today and an otherwise great instructor who seems to know a lot about health was sharing incorrect information about the flu with the class of about 40 people. She said that she had received several texts from other instructors asking her to cover their classes because they were vomiting. Then she went on to say that many at first thought it was food poisoning, but it’s spreading like illness, so it’s the flu, not food poisoning. She made a big deal that the flu is here. Is vomiting from the flu?

She’s only partially right.

Yes…

There’s a stomach bug going around.

It’s not food poisoning.

Influenza is in town.

But this extreme vomiting is not “the flu”

vomiting from the flu
Vomiting can be associated with influenza, but is not the main symptom.

The flu causes predominantly fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches for many days. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but those aren’t usually the predominant symptoms. And the flu doesn’t cause just a few hours of extreme vomiting like we’re seeing these days.

Why do I care if people call this stomach bug “flu”?

Runny nose is one of the symptoms of influenza.

The biggest reason I care is that it leads people to make other incorrect assumptions and to get the wrong treatments.

I hear all the time that people had the flu the year they got a flu shot, so they don’t want to get it anymore.

When probed about their illness, it’s usually not consistent with the flu. It was either a cold and cough or a stomach virus.

If they think a common cold or vomiting is from the flu, they’re mistaken.

They need to know that this isn’t the flu.

Cough is one of the most common symptoms of influenza, along with fever, sore throat, and body aches.

Common colds and vomiting are not prevented with the flu shot.

The flu shot has nothing to do with protecting against most cases of vomiting and diarrhea or most upper respiratory tract infections.

Of course there are people who got the flu shot (or FluMist when it was available) who did come down with the flu. They had a positive flu test and symptoms were consistent with the flu. But if they get influenza after the vaccine they tend to have milder symptoms. They tend to not end up in the hospital or dead if they’ve had the vaccine. Yes, even healthy young people can end up very sick from influenza. They can even die. (The FluMist didn’t protect well and was removed from the market due to this.)

We forget about all the times people did get the vaccine and they didn’t catch the flu even with likely exposure. Lack of disease is easy to fail to acknowledge.

We know the flu vaccine is imperfect. But if the majority of people get vaccinated, we can slow the rate of spread and protect us all against influenza most effectively.

We don’t have great treatments for influenza, so vaccinating and using other precautions is important!

Traveling Around the World

Spring Break is around the corner, which means many of my patients will be traveling to various areas of the world for vacation or mission trips. Many of these areas require vaccines prior to travel, so plan ahead and schedule a travel appointment with your doctor (if they do them) or at a travel clinic. Many insurance companies do not cover the cost of travel medicine visits, medications, or vaccines, but they are important and are a small cost in comparison to getting sick when on your trip.

Vaccinate when you can!

Immunization records will need to be reviewed, so if you are going to a travel clinic outside your medical home (doctor’s office) be sure to bring the records with you.

Vaccines work best when they are given in advance, so do not schedule the pre-travel visit the week you leave! Some vaccines that are recommended are easily available at your primary medical office but others are not commonly given so might require a trip to a local health department, large medical center, or travel clinic.

Check with your insurance company to see if the cost of the vaccine will be covered or not so you can include your cost in your travel budget if needed.

Watch the food and drinks

Many diseases are spread through eating and drinking contaminated foods. If in doubt: do not eat! Cooked foods are generally safer. Any fresh fruits or vegetables should be washed in clean water before eating. Be sure all dairy products are pasteurized. Avoid street vendors, undercooked foods (especially eggs, meats, and fish), salads and salsas made from fresh ingredients, unpeeled fruits, and wild game. Drink bottled water or water that has been boiled, filtered or treated in a way that is known to be reliable. Use the same water to brush teeth. Do not use ice unless you know it is from safe water because freezing does not kill the germs that cause illness.

As always, wash hands often, use sanitizer as needed when washing is not available, and avoid touching the “T” zone of your face (eyes, nose, and mouth). Do not share utensils or foods. Avoid people who are obviously ill.

Medicines for travelers Diarrhea

  • Many companies that schedule international travel recommend bringing antibiotics for prevention or treatment of diarrhea.
  • This is not recommended by many experts due to the rise of “superbugs” with the use of unnecessary antibiotics.
  • In general, the use of antibiotic prophylaxis is recommended only for high-risk travelers, and then only for short periods.
  • The average duration of illness when untreated will be 4 to 5 days, with the worst of the symptoms usually lasting less than a day.
  • Antibiotics might lead to yeast infections, allergic reactions, or even a chronic carrier state (colonization) or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Antibiotics should be reserved for the treatment of more serious illnesses that include fever and significant associated symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, bloody stools, cramping, and vomiting.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate is available over the counter for adults and can reduce traveler’s diarrhea rates by approximately 65% if taken four times daily. Risks of bismuth products are that it can turn the tongue and stool black and they contain salicylate. Salicylate carries a theoretical risk of Reye syndrome in children, so should be avoided in children.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics have been shown to help prevent and treat diarrheal illnesses safely in most people with intact immune systems.

Mosquitos…

Many diseases are spread by mosquitos. Contact with mosquitoes can be reduced by using mosquito netting and screens (preferably insecticide-treated nets), using an effective insecticide spray in living and sleeping areas during evening and nighttime hours, and wearing clothes that cover most of the body. Everyone at risk for mosquito bites should apply mosquito repellant. See below for prevention medication options.

Non-Infectious Risks

Vehicle safety risks vary around the world. Know local travel options and risks. Only use authorized forms of public transportation. For general information, see this International Road Safety page.
  • Learn local laws prior to travelling.
  • Be sure to talk with your teens about drug and alcohol safety prior to travel. Many countries have laws that vary significantly from the United States, and some teens will be tempted to take advantage of the legal nature of a drug or alcohol.
  • Remind everyone to stay in groups and to not venture out alone.
  • Dress appropriately for the area. Some clothing common in the United States is inappropriate in other parts of the world. Americans are also at risk of getting robbed, so do not wear things that will make others presume you are a good target.
  • Wear sunscreen! It doesn’t matter if you’re on the beach or on the slopes, you need to wear sunscreen every time you’re outside. Don’t ruin a vacation with a sunburn.
  • For more safety tips, see this helpful brochure.

Keep records

It is a great idea to take pictures of everyone each morning in case someone gets separated from the group. Not only will you have a current picture for authorities to see what they look like, but you will also know what they were wearing at the time they were lost.

Take pictures of your passport, vaccine record, medicines, and other important items to use if the originals are lost. Store the images so you have access to them from any computer in addition to your phone in case your phone is lost.

Have everyone, including young children, carry a form of identification that includes emergency contact information.

Create a medical history form that includes the following information for every member of your family that is travelling. Save a copy so you can easily find it on any computer in case of emergency.

  • your name, address, and phone number
  • emergency contact name(s) and phone number(s)
  • immunization record
  • your doctor’s name, address, and office and emergency phone numbers
  • the name, address, and phone number of your health insurance carrier, including your policy number
  • a list of any known health problems or recent illnesses
  • a list of current medications and supplements you are taking and pharmacy name and phone number
  • a list of allergies to medications, food, insects, and animals
  • a prescription for glasses or contact lenses

Specific Diseases to Prevent

Risks of illness vary depending on where you will be travelling and what time of year it will be. I refer to the CDC’s travel pages and the Yellow Book for information on recommendations. Some of the most common issues to address are discussed below in alphabetical order.

Dengue Fever

Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral illness. It is seen in parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America, Western Pacific Islands, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. There is no vaccine or specific treatment. Mosquito bite prevention measures are important.

Hepatitis

Infants should begin vaccinations against Hepatitis B starting at birth and against Hepatitis A starting at a year of age. Be sure these vaccines are up to date. Hepatitis A is spread through food and water, so be sure to follow the above precautions even if vaccinated.

Malaria

Malaria transmission occurs in large areas of Africa, Latin America, parts of the Caribbean, Asia (including South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East), Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific. Depending on the level of risk (location, time of year, availability of air conditioning, etc) no specific interventions, mosquito avoidance measures only, or mosquito avoidance measures plus prescription medication for prophylaxis might be recommended.

Prevention medications might be recommended, depending on when and where you will be travelling. The medicines must begin before travel starts, continue during the duration of the travel, and continue once you return home. There is a lot of resistance to various drugs, so area resistance patterns will need to be evaluated before choosing a medication.

  • Atovaquone-proguanil should begin 1–2 days before travel, daily during travel, and 7 days after leaving the areas. Atovaquone-proguanil is well tolerated, and side effects are rare but include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and headache. Atovaquone-proguanil is not recommended for prophylaxis in children weighing <5 kg (11 lb).
  • Mefloquine prophylaxis should begin at least 2 weeks before travel. It should be continued once a week, on the same day of the week, during travel and for 4 weeks upon return. Mefloquine has been associated with rare but serious adverse reactions (such as psychoses or seizures) at prophylactic doses but are more frequent with the higher doses used for treatment. It should be used with caution in people with psychiatric disturbances or a history of depression.
  • Primaquine should be taken 1–2 days before travel, daily during travel, and daily for 7 days after leaving the areas. The most common side effect is gastrointestinal upset if primaquine is taken on an empty stomach. This problem is minimized if primaquine is taken with food. In G6PD-deficient people, primaquine can cause hemolysis that can be fatal. Before primaquine is used, G6PD deficiency MUST be ruled out by laboratory testing.
  • Doxycycline prophylaxis should begin 1–2 days before travel to malarious areas. It should be continued once a day, at the same time each day, during travel in malarious areas and daily for 4 weeks after the traveler leaves such areas. Doxycycline can cause photosensitivity so sun protection is required.  It also is associated with an increased frequency of vaginal yeast infections. Gastrointestinal side effects (nausea or vomiting) may be minimized by taking the drug with a meal and it should be swallowed with a large amount of fluid and should not be taken before bed. Doxycycline is not used in children under 8 years. Vaccination with the oral typhoid vaccine should be delayed for 24 hours after taking a dose of doxycycline.
  • Chloroquine phosphate or hydroxychloroquine sulfate can be used for prevention of malaria only in destinations where chloroquine resistance is not present. Prophylaxis should begin 1–2 weeks before travel to malarious areas. It should be continued by taking the drug once a week during travel and for 4 weeks after a traveler leaves these areas. Side effects include gastrointestinal disturbance, headache, dizziness, blurred vision, insomnia, and itching, but generally these effects do not require that the drug be discontinued.

Measles

We routinely give the first vaccine against measles (MMR or MMRV) at 12-15 months of age, but the MMR can be given to infants at least 6 months of age if they are considered high risk due to travel or outbreaks. Under 6 months of age, an infant is considered protected from his mother’s antibodies. These antibodies leave the baby between 6 and 12 months. The antibodies prevent the vaccine from properly working, which is why we generally start the vaccine after the first birthday.

Any vaccine dose given before the first birthday does not count toward the two doses required after the first birthday, but might help protect against exposure if the immunity from the mother is waning. It is safe for a child to get extra doses of the vaccine if needed for travel between 6 and 12 months.

Meningitis

  • Meningococcal disease can refer to any illness that is caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. Within this family, there are several serotypes, such as A, B, C, W, X, and Y. This bacteria causes serious illness and often death, even in the United States. In the US there is a vaccine against meningitis types A, C, W, and Y recommended at 11 and 16 years of age but can be given as young as 9 months of age. MenACWY-CRM is newly approved for children 2 months and older.
  • There is a vaccine for meningitis B prevention recommended for high risks groups in the US but is not specifically recommended for travel.
  • Meningitis vaccines should be given at least 7-10 days prior to potential exposure.
  • Travellers to the meningitis belt in Africa or the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are considered high risk and should be vaccinated. Serogroup A predominates in the meningitis belt, although serogroups C, X, and W are also found. There is no vaccine against meningitis X, but if one gets the standard one that protects against ACWY, they will be protected against the majority of exposures. The vaccine is available for children 9 months and older in my office and a newer vaccine is approved for 2 months and up. Boosters for people travelling to these areas are recommended every 5 years.

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (TB) occurs worldwide, but travelers who go to areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and parts of Central and South America are at greatest risk. Travelers should avoid exposure to TB in crowded and enclosed environments and avoid eating or drinking unpasteurized dairy products. The vaccine against TB (bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine) is given at birth in most developing countries but has variable effectiveness and is not routinely recommended for use in the United States.

Those who receive BCG vaccination must still follow all recommended TB infection control precautions and participate in post-travel testing for TB exposure.

It is recommended to test for exposure in healthy appearing people after travel. It is possible to have a positive test but no symptoms. This is called latent disease. One can remain in this stage for decades without any symptoms. If TB remains untreated in the body, it may activate at any time. Typically this happens when the body’s immune system is compromised, as with old age or another illness.

Appropriately treating the TB before it causes active disease is beneficial for the long term.

 

Typhoid

Typhoid fever is caused by a bacteria found in contaminated food and water. It is common in most parts of the world except in industrialized regions (United States, Canada, western Europe, Australia, and Japan) so travelers to the developing world should consider taking precautions. There are two vaccines to prevent typhoid.

  • Children over 2 years of age can be vaccinated with the injectable form. It must be given at least 2 weeks prior to travel and lasts 2 years.
  • The oral vaccine for children over 5 years and adults is given in 4 doses over a week’s time and should be completed at least a week prior to travel. The oral vaccine lasts 5 years.
  • Neither vaccine is 100 % effective so even immunized people must be careful what they eat and drink in areas of risk.

Yellow Fever

Yellow fever is another mosquito-borne infection that is found in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. There is no treatment for the illness, but there is a vaccine to help prevent infection. Some areas of the world require vaccination against yellow fever prior to admittance. Yellow fever vaccine is recommended for people over 9 months who are traveling to or living in areas with risk for YFV transmission in South America and Africa.

Zika Virus

At this time it is advised that pregnant women and women who might become pregnant avoid areas in which the zika virus is found. For up to date travel advisories due to this virus, see the CDC’s Zika page.