It's that time of year when irritable toddlers may arrive home from day care flushed and fevered, preschoolers boast perpetual sniffles and runny noses, and school age kids can suddenly be "down for the count" with one bug or another.
Having one sick child home isn't fun. But what happens when it's two or more? How do you keep germs from spreading?
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The best defense is a good offense, says Dr. Nour Akhras, a pediatric hospitalist and infectious disease specialist who will play a pivotal role in providing care for youngsters at the new $125 million Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital when it opens its doors this April in Hoffman Estates.
Successfully preventing the spread of germs at home, she says, involves upfront education, practice and persistence.
Teach your kids to wash their hands
"It's never too late to teach your kids good hand-washing technique," says Akhras, who stresses the importance of using soap and keeping hands under water for 20 seconds -- about the same amount of time it takes to twice sing the Happy Birthday song or the ABCs.
"Even toddlers can become adept at helping to prevent the spread of germs by simply washing their hands before eating and helping in the kitchen and after sneezing, using the bathroom, playing with the dog or coming in from outside play."
According to Akhras, who has a 2-year-old and 4-year-old of her own at home, nearly 80 percent of infectious diseases are spread by touch.
"When you have a sick child, germs can get absolutely everywhere. More frequent hand washing by everyone can help minimize exposure to the virus that is transmitted through tiny invisible droplets in the air we breathe or on things we touch."
She says the type of soap doesn't matter, but cautions some antibacterial varieties can be especially drying for use on sensitive skin.
"When soap and warm water aren't available, it's OK to use an antibacterial hand sanitizer," Akhras says. "But don't forget to have them rub their hands together until the gel evaporates."
Parents, too, need to step up their own hand-washing when they are sick or caring for a sick child. "You don't want to be the one responsible for spreading those germs!"
It's not too late for flu shots
Each year, an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized because of flu-related complications. Influenza causes more hospitalizations among young children than any other vaccine-preventable disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, flu shots are on the front line of offense when it comes to preventing the spread of the flu. An annual seasonal flu vaccine for anyone 6 months of age or older is the best way to reduce the chance of getting seasonal flu and lessen chances you will spread it to others.
Sneeze into your sleeve, please
Prevention, Akhras says, is the single most important step parents can take when it comes to restricting the spread of germs. Those words of wisdom are especially vital when it comes to stopping cold germs in their tracks.
"Teach your little ones to sneeze into their sleeve instead of their hands," says Akhras, who adds that tissues never seem to be nearby when a sneeze is imminent.
Pediatricians caution colds are most contagious during the first two to four days after symptoms appear and may be contagious for up to three weeks. Caused by one of more than 100 rhinoviruses which can infiltrate the protective lining of the nose and throat, they often trigger an immune system reaction that can cause a variety of pesky symptoms including sore throats, headaches, a mild fever, sniffles, runny noses, coughs, decreased appetite and lower energy levels.
Say 'no' to sharing
Akhras says sharing eating utensils, cups, toothbrushes, washcloths and towels also can lead to spread of upper respiratory infections. Mealtimes may be chaotic, but swapping cups, silverware and samples from someone else's plate isn't a good idea when a family member is under the weather.
Pay special attention to diaper hygiene, especially if you have more than one in diapers. Diaper changing tables can be harbingers of bad news when it comes to the potential for sharing germs.
Another important skill for families with more than one child -- teach toddlers to kiss a baby's forehead, arms or even toes instead of the lips.
Good luck with that, Akhras says, who notes the futility of trying to keep kids apart.
"Don't panic if they wind up together," she notes. "As long as everyone is washing their hands it shouldn't be a problem, especially if they are sitting watching a movie or resting quietly."
Take precautions, but don't go overboard disinfecting
Akhras offers the additional following tips to help prevent the spread of germs:
• Stock the bathroom with disposable paper cups, tissues and disposable paper towels for hand drying. While germs don't live on towels long, they can be around long enough to make healthy kids sick.
• Disinfect surfaces in your home, but focus on things your child has touched including door knobs, tables, chairs and banisters.
• Once the symptoms have subsided, don't forget to launder the stuffed animals, wash toys and replace toothbrushes.
Good news when your child is sick
The common cold catches us all from time to time, but many parents say their child's symptoms seem to last from November until April.
That's not exactly true, says Dr. Karen Judy, a Glen Ellyn-based pediatrician of 17 years affiliated with the Cadence Physician Group. Judy says young children actually can have eight or more colds every winter.
"While most adults get better in seven to 10 days, some children experience secondary infections, acquiring new symptoms leading to ear infections, bronchitis or even pneumonia," says the doctor, who is the mother of two children, ages 9 and 11. "Others simply go from one cold straight to the next -- seemingly sick all the time."
The good news, she reports, is that fevers and colds aren't necessarily bad news.
"Having a fever or cold is a fact of life and means your child is building important immunities," notes the pediatric expert and mother of 9- and 11-year-old children. "It's not uncommon for children new to day care, preschool or school to catch a bug six to 10 times a year and to have symptoms for up to 25 percent of that first year or two."
Her advice for helping kids battle the bugs? Fluids, a single room cold air humidifier, rest and even grandma's chicken soup.
Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.
"Encourage your children to keep well hydrated," Judy says. "Drinking water or watered-down, non-sweetened juice can help loosen congestion and prevents dehydration. Push those fluids and juices, especially if they contain antioxidants to help the immune system."
The wonders of saline nasal drops
Over-the-counter saline nasal drops also help combat stuffiness and congestion, for infants and younger children unable to blow their nose. Saline drops, according to the experts are safe, have no rebound effect and are nonirritating, even for children.
Cold air humidifiers at night?
Because viruses like dry mucosal surfaces, a free-standing cool mist humidifier or vaporizer in your child's room at night can help raise humidity. Cold viruses thrive in the dry, dark areas and are common during winter months. Dry air dries mucus membranes, causing a stuffy nose and scratchy throat.
Forget over-the-counter cough and cold medicines
In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory, strongly recommending that over-the-counter cough and cold medications not be given to infants and children under 2 years of age due to life-threatening side effects. Several studies also show that cold and cough products don't work in children younger than 6 and can have potentially serious side effects.
When to call the doctor?
"It's time to call the doctor when a fever won't go away, your child isn't active, not playful and the fever bounces right back and lasts four or more days," Judy says. "If they aren't drinking fluids, develop a new or unusual rash, are extremely sleepy and difficult to awaken, a call to the pediatrician is advised."
But when is it time to keep your child home from school? Fever-free for 24 hours is a good rule of thumb, Judy and other pediatric health experts say.