The carefree days of summer seem like a distant memory. With another school year approaching, September signals a time of schedules and structure, filled with new classes, new teachers and new friends on the horizon. Only there’s another unwelcome group itching to make your children’s acquaintance: a whole host of new germs and bacteria.
While keeping the cold and flu bugs at bay may be your new school-year motto, it only takes one child with a respiratory infection sneezing on friends or sharing his or her snack without washing his or her hands to get those pesky germs circulating in the classroom and at home.
Yet even with this germ-spreading lot in tow, back to school doesn’t have to mean an abundance of sick days for your children. Prevention goes a long way toward keeping your little ones healthy and happily in school instead of home and miserable in bed.
Promote proper handwashing
It sounds simple, but handwashing really is an essential part of keeping the cold and flu bugs away. Teach your children how to wash their hands in warm soapy water before meals, after using the bathroom and when they return home from school or other activities. Handwashing should last 20 seconds, which is about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” Be sure to monitor your children’s handwashing techniques every once in a while to make sure they’re doing it properly.
Hand sanitizers also work if handwashing isn’t possible, says Dr. Athena Kourtis, a pediatric disease specialist and associate professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA. She suggests keeping some on hand for when you pick up your children from school, parties and play dates and when you leave a store or public space such as a museum or zoo.
Remind your children not to touch their eyes, nose or mouth when their hands are dirty as germs can be spread this way. Show them how to cough or sneeze into the inside of their elbows instead of their hands if they don’t have a tissue handy, and encourage them to put all used tissues into the garbage right away.
Sharing lunches and snacks should be off limits, but we all know it happens sometimes. So teach your children how to sample snacks safely (e.g., breaking off pieces from an area that hasn’t been bitten into yet or pouring liquids into another clean cup to sample).
Be a clean crusader
You can also inquire at your children’s school about its hygiene and antibacterial measures. Offer to bring in tissues, antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers and/or disinfecting wipes so they are always available to help keep the classroom germs to a minimum. In her book, Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World, Dr. Kourtis refers to several studies done in daycare settings that showed better hygiene does help prevent the frequency of infections.
She says sometimes parents may think upper respiratory symptoms are allergies when, in fact, they’re signs of an infection or cold. If your child is feeling sick or has a fever, keeping him or her at home is helpful but not foolproof. “Children can also be contagious one to two days prior to the onset of fever or other symptoms,” she says. That’s why it’s always important to be “on the defence” when it comes to protecting your children from the possible spread of germs, she adds.
Using a natural-source saline solution on your children to clean nasal passages can aid in clearing the nose of excess mucus caused by colds. It can also help prevent and reduce the duration of nasal cold symptoms and the chance of complications such as sinusitis, influenza and viral infections.
Regular checkups are also crucial so children are up to date on their vaccinations. “Vaccines are one of the most powerful examples of the power of prevention, having prevented millions of deaths and disabilities across the world,” says Dr. Kourtis.
Finally, make sure your children eat lots of fruits and vegetables and get plenty of rest and exercise. During the summer holidays, they may have fallen into the habit of staying up late and sleeping in so sleep specialists recommend that you gradually start imposing an earlier bedtime several weeks before the school year starts.
Adequate sleep, combined with a healthy diet and an active lifestyle, can help boost your child’s immune system so he or she can fight off illnesses before they happen. And you can rest easy that you’re keeping those bugs as far away as possible.