With the flu season off to an early start this year, health officials are worried it could be a bad one. A person sick with the flu will usually have high fevers, severe body aches, a bad cough, and will need to take a few days off from work or school. More severe cases can lead to hospitalization or sometimes be fatal.

The flu is especially dangerous for people over the age of 65, young children, pregnant women, and those with health conditions like asthma or heart disease. Despite this, many parents do not take the precautions needed to help protect themselves and their family from getting and spreading the flu virus.

It's important to keep in mind that the annual flu vaccine is the most effective way to prevent the flu. It's simple: when more people get vaccinated, fewer people are able to spread the virus. Many of us know that when one person gets the flu it can spread quickly among families, friends, and co-workers.

While the flu shot is the first line of defense against the virus — followed by protecting your cough and washing your hands with soap and water — here are additional precautions parents can take to keep their loved ones free from the flu.

Invest in a Travel-Size Hand Sanitizer

When traditional hand washing with soap and water is not an option, using hand sanitizer is a strong alternative that can kill flu germs. Parents should consider carrying around an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in their car, purse, or work bag that they can pass along to the whole family to use between activities. It may also be beneficial to put a personal hand sanitizer in a child's backpack for quick, convenient use at school — where a lot of the flu-related germs fester.

Carry a Personal Package of Tissues

Communal tissue boxes are a breeding ground for germs associated with the flu virus. Sending children to school with a personal package of tissues during flu season is a simple way to prevent them from using the germ-carrying communal tissue box.

Clean the Toys

Frequently cleaning children's toys — especially toys that are carried back and forth from school — can limit the spread of the flu. For example, stuffed animals hold onto bacteria so it can be beneficial to put them through the washing machine (if they are washer-friendly). For plastic toys, you'll likely have the most success if you first clean the toys and then disinfect. Yes, there is a difference! Cleaning toys with soap and water helps to physically remove germs from the surface. Disinfecting with a general household cleaner doesn't necessarily remove germs, but it uses chemicals to kill them. Consider it adding a second layer of defense. Before using any cleaning products, check the labels to make sure they are safe for children.

Use a Personal Water Bottle

It may seem obvious, but don't share water bottles — especially during flu season. Parents should use their own water bottles and encourage their children to do the same. If possible, children should use a personal water bottle at school to avoid using germ infested fountains. Don't forget, staying hydrated is essential to keeping a strong immune system!

Again, if you haven't already, go out and get a flu shot. The vaccine, coupled with these flu prevention tips, will increase your family's chances of having a happy, healthy winter!

Ron Brooks, MD, is the Senior Medical Director at Independence Blue Cross.