Nothing ruins a vacation like being forced to stay in your hotel room wit a high fever, cough, and a nose that does not stop running. Well, maybe throwing up at the same time. Well, maybe your kids doing it is even worse.
So we had our kids vaccinated against the flu, with two separate shots a few weeks apart. They love telling everyone that since they are five years old, they did not cry when they got the shots.
So when my son came down with high fever and vomited everything we tried to feed him, we naturally called the nearby clinic, since a child with 40 deg c fever does not walk anywhere. They told us to come in about 5 PM.
By then, his fever was almost normal. The doctor listened to my sons lungs, looked in his throat, and took a very unpleasant test for flu (by inserting a probe in his nose). And sure enough, he had the flu. His sisters were completely unaffected and in the evening his temperature was down to normal and he ate a double helping of Japanese curry, so it was over quickly (although it is the second day now and he is asleep, even though he stopped taking naps around lunch on normal days). So naturally I asked myself what we could have done. There are four simple precautions you can take:
* Wear a mask
* Stay out of crowded places
* Wash your hands
Why people wear masks in Japan
The need to protect themselves against the flu has meant some very publicly visible ways of protecting themselves. People in Japan wear masks - surgical quality face masks - during large parts of the year. There are four reasons people wear them:
* They want to protect themselves against germs, in particular viruses.
* They want to protect themselves against allergens, in particulsr pollen.
* They want to protect others against getting their colds.
* They want to hide their faces.
The last reason is not as common as you might expect, given that at times half the people you see on the train are wearing masks. But if you want to hide your face, you may be hiding something else. We have a neighbor whom I have never seen without a mask, but he is evidently somewhat famous, which explains it.
The other three reasons are much more common. And while you can see people with masks at any time of year (usually because they have a cold), you see many more from November to March - flu season, followed by the cedar bloom.
The Hello Kitty Masks
If your kids hate wearing masks (my daughter complained that it chafed her ears) there are lots of variety with cute motives to choose from. There are child-sized masks with Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse in any drugstore. The masks filter out anything the size of a flu virus and above, and since the virus has to go from the person sneezing to your mucus membranes before they die to infect you, it means you will be safe. Be careful when getting rid of the mask, as viruses can be infectious up until 30 days after expulsion from the host, and if you get live virus on your hands and touch your babies (for instance, blowing their noses), you could infect them.
The masks are extremely effective at filtering out pathogens, but also allergens. This is a real problem in Tokyo, because many people (like anywhere) are allergic to common plants. But it gets extra bad in spring when the Japanese cedar is blossoming.
When temperatures go over 10 deg c, the cedars start to flower. Since the mountains surrounding Tokyo are almost exclusively planted in cedar trees, and when they bloom they can create so much pollen that it looks like a sandstorm. The masks filter it out, making the air considerably easier to breathe for allergics.
The masked innovations
The Japanese mask makers are nothing if not creative, and while cute prints on childrens masks could probably count as an innovation, just trying to find the right grownup masks are more likely to leave you stymied.
There are masks for people with glasses, with mint and herbal aromas, with extra filtering, and with moisturizing pads. Masks actually moisturize the air that you breathe by keeping the air that you just breathed out close to your face. Moisturizing pads are usually less necessary, but one innovation still missing from the market is masks that channel away the snot from your nose when it is runny. If you have a runny nose cold, the inside of the mask can get pretty icky pretty fast. Not that this stops a Japanese salaryman, especially when there may be important meetings about the format of documentation.
Killing viruses: Poison and violence
Killing viruses (or virii, for all Latin sticklers out there) is not very different from killing humans. You apply a little poison and a considerable amount of violence, and the virus goes to the happy hunting grounds. Well, it may be debatable if it was alive in the first place, of course.
The amount of violence that it takes to kill something microscopic is very small, however. Your three-year old child will be able to excert sufficient force - when they wash their hands. The combination of the rubbing action and the soap is really deadly to germs, especially if you carefully wash away any residue. So make sure your kids wash their hands, not just at the end of the day, but also before meals and after playing in the dirt. There is usually a separate wash stand outside the toilets in Japanese restaurants, even in McDonalds.
Crowded train epidemics
There is always an extra peak in the influenza epidemics after the new years holidays. When kids go back to daycare the viruses they may have been carrying mutate to adapt to the new hosts, and when the parents crowd onto the commuter trains, they are sure to be sprayed with viruses.
I have written before about the daily travel rythm of Tokyo, and why you want to avoid bringing your kids onto the trains in rush hour. The risk of getting the flu is just one additional reason. When people litteraly are packed together tighter than sardines in a can, unable to move either hands or feet, one sneeze will infect tens of people. Including your children, if you managed tosqueeze them on board.
The lobby hand sanitizers
One thing that will help you kill viruses, although on your own hands rather than those of your kids, are the bottles of hand sanitizer you will find in the lobbies of hotels, office buildings, and in many stores. Just push the dispenser once and a small shower of rubbing alcohol comes out. Do not use it on your kids; while this is not drinking alcohol, the sting can be unpleasant. Especially if they rub it in their eyes.
Those bottles are a fairly recent addition to the Japanese virus-killing arsenal. There used to be nothing in the lobbies and stores, but the bottles were introduced after the 2011 Great Northeastern Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Outside of Japan, it may be better remembered as the cause of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. But following the disaster, companies and government offices started putting out bottles of hand sanitizer in their lobbies. Initially it was intended to ward off far worse epidemics, but the hand sanitizers proved so effective in reducing sick leave that they stayed.
An opening at the garglery
You may wonder what gargling has to do on the list of preventive measures, but it is very simple. The virus attaches to themembranes of the nose, throat, and mouth. There, they take over the cells of your body, making them produce more viruses in the process.
That is why a runny nose is a good thing when you have a cold, and why the influenza virus is more prevalent in winter. Winter in Japan means the air is dry, which is why you can see mt Fuji from Tokyo. There is no haze, because it freezes out in the cold air.
When the air is moist there is a constant lubrication of the membranes in your breathing apparatus. When the air is dry this does not happen. That is why a runny nose makes it harder for viruses to stick - and why gargling is effective. Always drink a lot (of water) when you are out, and gargle when you come home.
What do do to protect yourself from the flu
So let me sum up what you should do to protect yourself from the flu:
* Get vaccinated (it worked for two of our three kids!)
* Wear a mask when in public places
* Wash your hands often with soap and water
* Do not re-use the same towel to wipe your hands and your childrens faces, use paper towels
* Gargle when you get "home".
* Avoid rush-hour trains
This was part of my ongoing coverage about life in Japan. I have written about safety for tourists in Japan, what you should plan for your budget, how to figure out where to stay, how to buy diapers and other baby supplies, what and where to eat with your kids, ten foods your kids will love in Japan, how to cope with winter, how to use a laundromat, and how to avoid insect bites (and when you need to do it).
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.