Pandemic Flu


Different Types of Flu

There are major differences between seasonal flu, which occurs every year, and pandemic flu, which occurs only three or four times in a century.
  • Seasonal flu (also called common flu) is a respiratory illness caused by a flu virus that has previously circulated in the population and is transmitted from person to person. It usually occurs during the winter months. Most people will have some pre-existing immunity to it, and effective vaccines against infection are produced each season as the virus is identified.
  • Pandemic flu is a global outbreak of a new flu virus that is easily and quickly transmitted from person to person. Most people will not have pre-existing immunity, and a vaccine may not be available for 4 to 6 months after the virus is identified. A moderate pandemic flu causes more widespread and severe illness than seasonal flu. A severe pandemic flu, caused by a more virulent strain of virus, may result in widespread loss of life.



Preparing your Family for Pandemic Flu

One of the best ways to lessen the impact of pandemic flu on your family is to be prepared.

Here are some steps that you can take before a pandemic occurs:

  • Make sure family members get a seasonal flu shot every year. Unless vaccine is in short supply, all members 6 months of age and older are candidates for a flu shot.
  • Have all family members practice preventive behaviors:
    • Wash your hands frequently
    • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
    • Stay at home when you have flu symptoms
    • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing
  • Keep basic health supplies on hand (such as soap, tissues, aspirin or acetaminophen, and a thermometer).
  • Carefully discuss with your family what pandemic flu is, how it is contracted, and the possible dangers.  Hold this discussion in a comfortable environment and encourage family members to ask questions.  You may want to have a separate discussion with young children in order to address specific fears or misconceptions.
  • Have your family work together to gather supplies that you might need during a pandemic flu.  These include drinking water, canned food,prescription medicines, flashlights, batteries, and cash.
  • Create a list of emergency telephone numbers and helpful community resources (such as your family's schools and physicians, local utility companies, fire and police, the local red cross and salvation Army, and community mental health center).
  • Develop a plan for maintaining contact with friends and family members via telephone and internet in the event of a pandemic flu.
  • Prepare for possible disruption of telephone, internet, and cell phone services, and interruption of other utilities including electricity, gas, and water.

Pandemic Flu Fact Sheet: A Parents' Guide to Helping Families Cope with a Pandemic Flu (2009) (PDF)
    >En Español [Influenza pandémica: Guía de los padres para ayudar a las familias a enfrentar la Influenza pandémica (2009)] (PDF)



Coping with the Stress of a Pandemic Flu

Even if your family is prepared, a pandemic flu may be very stressful. To help your family cope with this stress, follow these recommendations:
  • Stay updated about what is happening with the flu by getting information from credible media outlets, local public health authorities, and updates from public health websites.
  • Seek support from friends and family by talking to them on the telephone or communicating through e-mail.
  • Even if your family is isolated or quarantined, be sure to maintain a healthy diet and exercise.
  • Although you need to stay informed, minimize exposure to television news or other information that might promote stress or panic. Be particularly aware of (and limit) how much media coverage your children are watching.
  • E-mail and instant messages may be good ways to stay in contact with others during a pandemic flu, but the Internet may also have the most sensational flu coverage and may be full of rumors. Make sure your children are not exposed to this content while on the Internet.
  • Keep your family's schedule consistent when it comes to bedtimes, meals, and exercise.
  • Make time to do things at home that have made you and your family feel better in other stressful situations, such as resting, reading, watching movies, listening to music, playing games, exercising, or engaging in religious activities.
  • Focus on supporting children and other family members by encouraging questions and helping them understand the situation; praising good behavior; talking about their feelings; helping them express their feelings through drawing or other activities; and creating household jobs or activities that involve them.
  • Have children participate in distance learning opportunities that may be offered by their schools or other institutions/organizations.
  • Recognize that feelings such as grief, guilt, loneliness, boredom, fear of contracting disease, anxiety, stress, and panic are normal reactions to a stressful situation.
  • Modify your goals to meet the current reality of the situation, and focus on what you can accomplish.
  • Shift expectations and priorities to focus more on what gives you meaning, purpose, or fulfillment.
  • Attempt to control self-defeating statements, or replace them with more helpful thoughts.
  • Give yourself small breaks from the stress of the situation.


Helping Children Cope

Even if your family is prepared, a pandemic flu may be very stressful. Use the chart below to learn about children's typical reactions and recommendations to help your family cope in the event of a pandemic flu:

Age Group


How to Help


(ages 1-5)

  • Fear of darkness, bad dreams
  • Speech difficulties
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control, constipation, bed-wetting
  • Change in appetite
  • Encourage expression through play, reenactment, storytelling
  • Provide reassurance (verbal and physical)
  • Allow short-term changes in sleep arrangements
  • Plan calming, comforting activities before bedtime
  • Maintain regular family routines
  • Limit media exposure



(ages 5-11)

  • Irritability, whining, aggressive behavior
  • Clinging, nightmares
  • Withdrawal from peers, loss of interest
  • Competition for parents' attention
  • Patience and tolerance
  • Play sessions and staying in touch with friends through telephone and Internet
  • Relaxation of expectations at home
  • Structured but undemanding chores/responsibilities
  • Set gentle but firm limits
  • Discuss the pandemic flu and encourage questions
  • Encourage expression through play and conversation
  • Limit media exposure


(ages 11-14)

  • Sleep/appetite disturbance
  • Rebellion in the home
  • School problems
  • Loss of interest
  • Physical complaints
  • Stay in touch with friends through telephone and Internet
  • Relaxation of expectations at home
  • Structured but undemanding responsibilities
  • Additional individual attention
  • Encourage expression through discussion and conversation
  • Limit media exposure


(ages 14-18)

  • Physical symptoms (headaches, rashes, etc.)
  • Sleep/appetite disturbance
  • Agitation or decrease in energy, apathy
  • Delinquent/irresponsible behavior
  • Encourage resumption of routines
  • Encourage discussion of flu experience with peers and family (but do not force)
  • Stay in touch with friends through telephone and Internet
  • Reduce expectations
  • Limit media exposure
Coping with Grief

The greatest threat from a pandemic flu is loss of life. If you are careful and follow flu precautions you can greatly decrease the likelihood of illness and death, but if the worst happens and a loved one dies, you are likely to experience significant grief. You may experience the following states as you mourn:
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Decreased desire to go about daily activities
  • Decreased ability to carry on with daily routines
  • Decreased ability to find meaning in life
  • Acceptance of loss after a period of mourning
While grief is natural, try to find positive ways to cope with your feelings. Here are several helpful actions:
  • Reach out to your friends and family and talk to them about your loss. Use telephones and e-mail to communicate if necessary.
  • Seek religious/spiritual help or professional counseling (this may be available online or by telephone).
  • Find outlets for your feelings such as writing, drawing, exercising, blogging, and any other relaxing activity.
  • Stay engaged with daily activities or projects.
  • Avoid turning to destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking, overeating, or drug use.

 Pandemic Flu Fact Sheet: A Parents' Guide to Helping Families Cope with a Pandemic Flu (2009)



When to Seek Professional Help

If you or your loved ones experience significant distress or trouble coping with problems associated with the pandemic flu, you may benefit from professional mental health treatment. Watch for these symptoms or reactions:
  • Loss of sleep, frequent nightmares, or disruptive and intrusive thoughts
  • Feelings of depression or inability to participate in normal activities
  • Disorientation, extreme memory difficulties, or losing awareness of time
  • A previously diagnosed mental health condition that may be recurring or worsening
  • Inability to care for self (eating, bathing, or handling daily life)

Remember, during a pandemic it may be difficult to access professional mental health services in person. If this is the case, try to contact local mental health providers who offer help over the telephone or through the Internet. Consult your local mental health association, community mental health centers, or other local mental health professionals to find out what services are available in your area.

Pandemic Flu Fact Sheet: A Parents' Guide to Helping Families Cope with a Pandemic Flu (2009) (PDF)
    >En Español [Influenza pandémica: Guía de los padres para ayudar a las familias a enfrentar la Influenza pandémica (2009)] (PDF)