The average American child has six to 10 colds a year. In fact, children's colds cause more doctor visits and missed school days than any other illness. And every parent knows how easily colds passed to other family members once one child gets sick.
What can a parent do? Stopping cold germs where they breed is your best defense.
"Children gathering in schools is one of the main ways germs circulate in communities," says Athena P. Kourtis, MD, PhD, MPH, a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World.
- Children's immune systems are less mature than those of adults, so they're more susceptible to germs.
- At school, kids are in close contact with each other.
- And they tend to have germy habits, such as sticking fingers and objects in their mouths.
Combine these factors, and the conditions are ripe for spreading germs at school. But most illness can be avoided, says Philip Tierno, PhD, author of The Secret Life of Germs. "A few simple measures can go a long way."
Here are 10 ways to help protect your child from germs and illness at school.
1. Get Immunized
"Prevention is the best medicine," Tierno says. Make sure your child is up to date on scheduled immunizations and that everyone in the family has gotten a seasonal flu vaccine. In 2010, the CDC began recommending flu vaccination for everyone over six months old. If you miss the vaccine in fall, winter or even spring is not too late. Peak flu season is usually not until February and you can get vaccinated as late as May.
2. Know How and When to Wash Hands
One of the most common ways children get colds is by rubbing their nose or eyes after cold virus germs have gotten on their hands. And children often don't wash their hands often enough or well enough at school. In one study of middle and high school students, about half washed their hands after using the bathroom -- and only 33% of the girls and 8% of the boys used soap.
Make sure your child knows to use soap and warm water. They should scrub all over -- including the back of their hands, between fingers, and around nails -- for about 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice. Then rinse well in warm water, dry with a paper towel, and use the towel to turn off the water.
In an ideal world, children would wash their hands many times a day in school. In the real world, the most important times to wash are after using the bathroom and before eating, drinking, or touching their mouth, eyes, or nose. Ask your child's teacher to include hand-washing time before lunch or snacks and teach your child not to touch their nose, eyes, or mouth when their hands are dirty.
3. Provide Hand Sanitizer
Hand washing is the best defense against germs, but on field trips or at games or other events, it's not always convenient or possible. Depending on your child's age and school policy, sending them to school with an alcohol-based sanitizing gel or wipe is a good alternative. Some classrooms also provide hand sanitizer. To make it effective, your child should rub the product all over their hands and fingers until they are dry, about 30 seconds. Children under age six should not carry gel or use it without supervision.
"I would also recommend that parents carry hand sanitizer and sanitize children's hands when they pick them up from school or parties, especially during cold and flu season," Kourtis tells WebMD. Tierno warns that many natural brands of sanitizers either don't work or don't kill enough germs. To be effective, a sanitizer should contain at least 60% alcohol, according to the CDC.
4. Teach Your Child Germ Etiquette
Teach your child to stay away from sick children as much as possible. "When children see another child hacking or sneezing, they should move away from the person, not mingle," Tierno says. On the other hand, your child should cover coughs and sneezes to prevent spreading infection if they are sick. When possible, sneeze into a tissue and throw it in the trash right after. Then wash their hands. Otherwise, they should cough or sneeze into crook of their elbow, not their hands.
5. Bring a Pencil Box
Supply your child with their own pencils, crayons, erasers, rulers, and other classroom supplies. They'll have less risk of picking up an illness from sharing these objects. Consider packing mechanical pencils, which don't need to be sharpened. Then your child can avoid the class pencil sharpener, a potential germ hotspot.
6. Don't Share at School
It's simple to remember what is OK to share at school: "Nothing," Tierno says.
Beyond sticking to their own food and drinks, "Children should avoid sharing lipstick or lip balm," Kourtis says. "They should also use their own face make-up, razors, creams, and lotions to avoid skin infections, including MRSA and herpes." Items such as ear buds, locker-room towels, sports jerseys and helmets, and baseball gloves should also be off-limits for sharing.
With younger children, it may be difficult to avoid sharing books and toys in the classroom. Then it's best to remind your child wash their hands afterward and avoid touching their eyes, mouth, or nose until they do.
7. Beware of Top Germ Spots
A 2005 study of germs in schools found that classroom water fountain spigots and plastic cafeteria trays were the germiest spots in school. The spigot had 2,700,000 and the tray 33,800 bacteria per square inch, compared with 3,200 on the restroom toilet seat. This is most likely because toilet seats get cleaned regularly, while trays and water fountains may not be.
Tierno advocates teaching children not to put their mouths on spigots when they get a drink of water. Another strategy is to send your child to school with their own water, if school policy permits it. Some schools actually encourage children to bring their own water.
For avoiding germs on cafeteria trays, your child should not eat something that drops on the tray. And if they carry hand sanitizer, they could use it after carrying the tray to the table but before eating.
8. Keep Backpacks Clean
As any parent knows, school backpacks can get pretty gnarly from long-forgotten lunches and all the other things children stuff into them. Have your child clean out their backpack regularly. Then clean the inside of the backpack periodically. Use a wet cloth or sanitary wipe to remove dripped milk and stuck-on food or crumbs. Always make sure to pack lunches in a bag or lunchbox, not loose in a backpack, to keep backpacks cleaner. And while your child is cleaning out their backpack, remind them to bring dirty gym clothes home to wash and to clean rotting food out of their locker.
9. Build Immunity
Help protect your child from inside as well as out. Make sure that they get enough sleep and exercise, avoids stress, and eats has a well-balanced diet. Pack a healthy lunch and snacks. Encourage them to drink water at school to help keep their immune system strong.
10. Provide Classrooms Germ Supplies
Many schools are stretched financially and may not have enough items to help teachers maintain a healthy classroom. If there isn't enough soap, hand sanitizer, or tissues to go around, ask if you can donate some or encourage each parent to supply a box of tissue and bacterial wipes to build up your classroom's supply. Teachers may also appreciate small paper cups for water, colorful posters reminding kids to wash their hands, or, for younger kids, soaps with a fun smell or color to encourage lathering up.