H1N1 and seasonal flu: Answers for parents

September 24, 2009

H1N1 and the seasonal flu

Penn State provides answers for parents to frequently asked questions about H1N1 and seasonal flu and how they can help their students stay healthy or recuperate. Information about students returning home to recover and what to do if students miss class is included.

Frequently Asked Questions for Parents

Q. What should I tell my child about H1N1?

The H1N1 virus (referred to as “swine flu” early on) is a new influenza virus causing illness in people. This new virus was first detected in people in the United States in April 2009. Advise your child to use good judgment and to take precautions against getting the virus. Here are four important ways your child can stay healthy and keep from getting sick with flu or spreading the flu:

-- Practice good hand hygiene. They should wash their hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.

-- Practice respiratory etiquette. The main way flu spreads is from person to person in droplets produced by coughs and sneezes, so it’s important that people
cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when they cough or sneeze. If they don’t have a tissue, they should cough or sneeze into their elbow or shoulder,
not their hands.

-- Stay home if they are sick. Stay home or in their place of residence for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever.

-- Talk to their health care providers about whether they should be vaccinated. Students, faculty and staff who want protection from the flu can be encouraged to get vaccinated for seasonal flu. Also students, faculty and staff who are at higher risk for flu complications from 2009 H1N1 flu, should consider getting the H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available. People at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 flu complications include pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes). For more information about priority groups for vaccination, visit http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/vaccination/acip.htm.

Q. How do I know if my child has the flu or just a cold?

To help your child determine if he or she has contracted the flu, University Health Services has provided a guide to the symptoms and ailments that most commonly accompany the flu virus (www.sa.psu.edu/uhs/pdf/do_i_have_flu.pdf).

Q. As a parent of a student who attends Penn State, should I bring them home if they are sick?

If possible, residential students with flu-like illness whose families live relatively close to the campus should go home to self-isolate. They should return home in a way that limits contact with others as much as possible. For example, travel by private car or taxi would be preferable over use of public transportation. They should stay away from other people until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever (100 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius) or signs of a fever (have chills, feel very warm, have a flushed appearance, or are sweating). This should be determined without the use of fever-reducing medications. If flu severity increases, students at higher risk for flu complications -- including those with certain chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or asthma, or who are pregnant  -- may consider staying home while flu transmission is high in their institution community.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending removing healthy students from their institutions.

Q. What should my child do about missed classes and exams?

If your student is unable to attend class because of illness, he or she should consult the syllabus for each course. The syllabus will indicate how faculty wish to be informed when students are unable to attend class. Where this information is unavailable, your student should send an email to each instructor. In this email the student should inform the instructor that he or she is unable to attend class and give an indication of how much class time they expect to miss. Giving instructors advance notice of absences is very important since the University Health Service does not provide written excuses for students to take to instructors. Instructors' email addresses are available on the Penn State Directory at http://www.psu.edu/ph/.

Q. What if my child is sick but cannot come home?

Where your child should recuperate will vary by campus. At University Park, there is a limited amount of space available where we can house ill students together so they can recover from the flu.

If there is space available for sick students to self-isolate outside their regular rooms at other campuses, your child will be offered a space. However, if there are no alternative spaces in which sick students may self-isolate, they will return to their rooms to recover.

We have been providing ill students with masks so that they can return to the designated isolation areas or to their rooms. The masks allow those who return to their rooms to still visit the public restrooms in their residence halls. Our medical staff also is suggesting that ill students who are self-isolating in their rooms wear the mask in the presence of any healthy roommates -- to lessen that person's exposure as much as possible.

Q. What if my child's roommate becomes ill?

This is a highly contagious, though relatively less severe, illness than was first believed. Because of its ease in transmission, we know that there may come a point where the cases of sick students exceed our capacity to provide them with special areas where they can self-isolate to recover. Students are likely to be self-isolating in their own rooms. The well roommate will be encouraged to stay in another location with friends or family if that is an option.

However, if there are no alternative spaces for either a well student or a sick student, then healthy students may have to live for a period of time with their sick roommates. In those cases, the best approach is for all roommates to continue to wash their hands at every opportunity. The ill student should wear a mask and maintain a safe distance from others. Added precautions include frequently wiping surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, counters, desk tops, TV remotes, microwave or refrigerator handles, and computer keyboards with a disinfecting wipe. They also may want to keep a can of disinfectant spray, such as Lysol, nearby. The ill student should cover their coughs and sneezes, dispose properly of used tissues, wear a mask, avoid crowds, get plenty of fluids and try to rest. Both students should talk to their health care providers about being vaccinated for both seasonal flu and H1N1, when that vaccination becomes available. People at higher risk for H1N1 flu complications include those with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes).

Q. Should my child get antiviral medicine if they get sick?

Parents should make sure their child knows if he or she is at higher risk for flu complications. People at higher risk for flu complications including students, faculty and staff with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes) who become sick with flu-like illness should call their health care provider as soon as possible to determine if they need antiviral treatment. Early treatment with antiviral medicines often can prevent hospitalizations and deaths. Parents should encourage sick students who are at higher risk for flu complications to seek early treatment. Antiviral medicines are not given to all people during flu season because most people get better on their own, over-use can promote antiviral-resistant viruses, and use of antiviral medicines can cause adverse reactions in some people.

Q. What should my child do if they contract the flu virus?

With the number of flu cases expected to rise in the coming month as flu season hits its stride, doctors in University Health Services have prepared a Self-Care Guide for Influenza for students, faculty and staff to consult in the event they contract the flu. The guide can be found at http://live.psu.edu/story/41494.


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Last Updated September 29, 2009