Sneezes and Sharing: Your Guide to Kids Winter Health

Unrecognizable mom helps her young daughter wash her hands. They are rubbing their hands together creating foam with the soap.
Photo: iStock

Is your daughter’s preschool class starting to feel more like a petri dish? Or maybe your son’s locker room reminds you of the inside of a laundry hamper? If it seems like every time you turn around someone else you know has a child home sick, check out these six tips for staying well and keeping your kids well through the winter.

Wash your hands. It turns out that this basic advice is still the best way of preventing the spread of germs. Encourage your kids (and remind yourself) to wash their hands before and after you eat, after using the bathroom, after playing with shared toys and after any sneeze or cough. The trick is to wash for long enough to make a difference—ask your kids to sing “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands to ensure their washing is as effective as it can be. No easy access to water or soap? Send your kids to school with alcohol-based hand sanitizer safely tucked into their backpack so they can use it whenever the need arises. Just remember, that if their (or your) hands are visibly soiled, it’s time to go back to good old-fashioned soap and water.

Vaccinate! Even though the flu vaccine is not always 100% effective, it is still the best way to prevent influenza, a virus that causes fever, aches and pains, congestion, respiratory distress, and can even lead to hospitalization or death. Although everyone on the internet seems to have a horror story about getting sick after the flu vaccine, the injectable flu vaccine is made from killed components of the influenza virus, making it impossible to get the flu from the vaccine.

Eat well and sleep well. Your grandma and mom have always warned you to dress your little ones warmly and not let them outside with wet hair, but these actions don’t prevent gross winter illnesses. But, it turns out that some of their other advice was spot on—eating nourishing, healthy food, including fruits and vegetables; limiting sugary foods; and getting at least eight hours of sleep (without clutching their screens) helps to keep the immune system happy and healthy through the winter months.

Stop sharing. Okay, maybe this isn’t great advice to share with your toddler, but sharing drinks, snacks and lunch items can spread illness. Help them remember not to put shared items, like toys, books and crayons, into their mouths, and not to put their hands in their mouths or their eyes after playing with these items. Remind them germs are invisible but live everywhere. This advice applies to your older kids, too—items like lip gloss, winter hats, water bottles and shared sporting equipment can spread diseases like herpes, cold and flu viruses, and stomach bugs, not to mention problems like head lice. Encourage your kids to share some things—but keep their germs to themselves!

Cover your mouth! Once again, grandmas, moms and preschool teachers are right—covering your mouth with a tissue while sneezing or coughing is a great way to prevent the spread of infections. No tissue handy? Show your kids how to cough and sneeze into their arm and elbow, and turn away from others as they’re doing it. Have them practice at home so they’ll be ready to cover with ease at school or with friends.

Play carefully. Winter is a great time for activities like sledding, ice skating, snowball fights, skiing and hockey. These can be fun and exciting activities for your crew, but they can also be dangerous. Make sure that your kids’ equipment and protective gear (like helmets) are in good condition and up to proper standards—sorry, college students, it turns out cafeteria trays are not the safest sleds—and that they are dressed warmly enough for the conditions. Ensure the safety of the area they are playing in and don’t forget to check on them frequently…or jump in yourself and enjoy the season.

Dr. Rina Meyer is a board certified pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Stony Brook Children’s and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Her views are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of Stony Brook Children’s and the Renaissance School of Medicine.

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