Germ Warfare! How to Help Your Kids Stay Healthy in the Classroom

By Christina Elston

Back-to-School Doesn't Have to Mean Colds and Flu

ColdAs a stay-at-home dad, Chuck Hubbeling has plenty of experience with colds and the flu. So when a new school year starts, this father of four children, ranging in age from 3 to 7, braces for the inevitable sniffles and sneezes. “I would say it comes in waves,” he says. “If one person has it, everybody’s going to have it.”

Even his wife, a pediatrician, doesn’t bring home as much illness as the kids.

Back-to-school means back to weekday routines, homework and extracurricular activities. But for many families, it also means a return to the onslaught of colds, viruses and other health problems that teem in a classroom of kids. Children starting kindergarten or preschool often bring home a series of illnesses as they grow accustomed to their classmates.

There is a positive side to all the sniffling that results. “It does build up the immune systems of the kids, which is a process that everyone has to go through. So there is a silver lining,” says Lisa Chamberlain, M.D., a pediatrics instructor at Stanford University.

Most of the infectious organisms (“germs”) that people encounter are viruses, which the body produces antibodies against and learns to fight off, explains John Bradley, M.D., an infectious disease expert and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. The more viruses children encounter, the more antibodies their little bodies make, and the less likely they are to get sick. Children with siblings at home, or who have been to daycare or preschool, start building immunity early. Others start kindergarten with relatively little exposure to other kids. “Every virus they come into contact with, they’ll get an infection with,” Bradley says.

A Healthy Foundation for Fighting Colds

Despite parents’ best efforts, most kids will have an average of three to six respiratory illnesses per year, says Ralph Feigin, M.D., physician in chief at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Still, if you’re healthy to begin with, you’ve got a better chance of warding off illness.

To give kids’ bodies a head start at staying healthy, experts offer the following recommendations:

• Have your children fully vaccinated before they enter school, and vaccinated against influenza annually, Feigin advises.

• Make sure your kids are eating right. Malnourished people are more susceptible to getting sick, Bradley notes. “If you’re healthy, your body has all of the tools it needs to respond well to infection.”

• Getting eight or nine hours of sleep per night is important. Busy family schedules can interfere with a healthy bedtime, cautions elementary school nurse Deborah Roff. “You wouldn’t believe how many first-graders come in, and I find out that they’re up until 10 p.m. routinely,” she says.

• Teach kids healthy habits, such as blowing their noses with tissues that they then dispose of, and covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough. Roff, who has four children of her own, advises kids to sneeze and cough into the crook of their arm (inner elbow) instead of their hands, to keep little fingers from spreading viruses around. “You don’t touch things with your elbow like you do with your hands,” she says.

Roff also teaches children not to put their mouths directly on school drinking fountains, and to let the water run for a few seconds before drinking, in case the person before them didn’t follow that rule.

Hand-to-Hand Combat

The ultimate cold- and illness-prevention strategy is hand-washing.

Hand washing“A large part of how illnesses are spread is through contaminated hands,” says Grace Lee, M.D., a pediatrics instructor and the infectious diseases expert at Harvard Medical School.

Unfortunately, few of us realize that while kissing someone who is ill is a bad idea, shaking his or her hand could be much worse.

Washing up after that handshake or after blowing a sick child’s nose could keep you, the parent, from getting sick. “If you wipe your child’s nose, and you don’t wash your hands,” says Bradley, “and then you absentmindedly rub your own nose, you’re going to inoculate yourself with the virus.”

Everyone in the family should wash hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, before and after eating, and after coming home from school or work.

Correct hand-washing technique is important:

• Wet your hands in warm water.

• Lather them with soap while you sing the traditional alphabet song or count to 30.

• Next, run your hands under warm water until all of the soap is gone.

• Dry your hands completely.

Using antibacterial soap actually isn’t necessary, says Chamberlain, because there’s no evidence that it’s more effective at preventing the spread of illness than regular soap.

Germ-Fighting Gel

Sometimes, however, soap and water aren’t convenient.

“Caregivers are incredibly busy, and it’s difficult to get to the sink all the time to wash your hands,” says Lee, who has a 1-year-old daughter. In those cases, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help. In a study conducted by Lee and colleagues at Harvard, families who used the gels transmitted fewer colds among family members than those who did not.

Lee says it might be the extra attention to clean hands, rather than the gels that does the trick. But that still serves to make her point.

“The important message is to try and get to the sink to wash your hands, especially when you’re caring for a sick child,” she says. And if you can’t, well-placed bottles of hand sanitizer can be a big help.

Hubbeling reports that his daughter’s kindergarten class routinely uses hand sanitizer as they leave school, and his family uses it on the go.

When she’s out with her 3-year-old daughter, Chamberlain says she also keeps gel handy. “As we’re leaving the park, or as we’re leaving her kinder-gym, I just give her some hand gel.”

Practicing Containment After a Cold Strikes

Along with hand hygiene, teach your children to minimize contact with anyone who is sick. This includes not sharing food or drinks, toothbrushes, towels, hand towels or washcloths.

“You should not share towels between family members,” says Feigin. “And do not hesitate to wash the towels daily.” Paper towels are a sanitary hand-towel alternative for the laundry-challenged.

Of course, in spite of all of our efforts to keep sickness at bay, sometimes just being a parent means illness is inevitable – even for infectious disease expert John Bradley. He recalls one incident, years ago, when his 18-month-old son was battling a cold and eating a cookie.

“He wanted to share his cookie with me. And you could see the snot just running down,” he says. This dad could have chosen to pass on the cookie and stay healthy, but he didn’t. “I knew I would get infected, but this was such an important moment,” he recalls. “I ate the cookie, and I got sick.”

Related reading: No Help for Colds in the Medicine Cabinet

Learn More About Kids’ Colds and Flu
Find more information on children’s colds, including the difference between a cold and the flu and how to ease young children’s stuffy noses.

Christina Elston is a freelance writer specializing in family health issues and a regular contributor to United Parenting Publications.