When Kids Are Sick: How to Stop Germs From Spreading

Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on November 19, 2022

One sick child is a lot to handle -- you don’t need two or three. Stopping viruses can be hard, but it’s not impossible. Follow these tips to keep germs from spreading.

Handwashing is the best way to stop germs from spreading. Make it a house rule for everyone, and show your kids these steps:

Wet your hands. The water can be hot or cold. Make sure it’s not too hot.

Lather up. Rub soap onto your hands for 20 seconds. Be sure to clean your wrists, in between your fingers, the backs of your hands, and under your nails.

Rinse and dry. Use clean, running water. Dry with a clean paper towel or washcloth.

Let kids know they should wash their hands at these times:

  • After they sneeze, cough, or blow their nose
  • After using the restroom
  • Before eating or making food

If there’s no soap and water around, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Cold and flu germs spread easily when you cough, sneeze, or talk. Sick or not, you should:

  • Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands.
  • Put used tissues in the trash right way.

A little one sick with a cold or the flu should eat in their room if possible. Wear disposable or reusable gloves to wash germy dishes, or pop them in the dishwasher. Remind your child not to share cups or eating utensils when they’re sick.

High-touch surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, countertops, and faucets are magnets for germs. Clean them with soap and water to get rid of dirt, then disinfect to kill germs. Make sure you:

  • Check that the cleaning product is EPA-approved.
  • Read the product’s directions.
  • Wear gloves that you can throw away or wash and wear again.

Other items you should clean and disinfect -- or just get rid of -- to stop the spread of germs include:

Toys. Stuffed toys are safe to clean in the washing machine, and you can wash some plastic toys in the dishwasher or with a spray bottle filled with soap and hot water (be sure to rinse). Read the toys’ cleaning directions first.

Towels. Damp or wet towels attract viruses and other gross stuff. Wash or change your bath and hand towels and washcloth at least once a week. Do it more often when someone is sick.

Diaper changing table. Use baby wipes or paper towels to clean any grime, then follow up with a disinfectant to kill germs.

Toothbrush. Your kid’s toothbrush can carry germs. There are ways to sanitize it with hydrogen peroxide or an antiseptic mouthwash, but your best bet is to replace it with a new one.

If possible, quarantine germs by keeping your sick child away from the healthy people in your home. Give them a separate bedroom and bathroom if you can. You should also:

Clean as needed. Limit contact by wearing gloves and only clean when the bedroom or bathroom is soiled.

Offer cleaning supplies. Older kids who aren’t too sick can clean and disinfect their own space.

Show Sources


KidsHealth: “Hand Washing: Why It’s So Important,” “Choosing Safe Toys,” “The Flu (Influenza).”

CDC: “Cleaning Your Home,” “Safe & Healthy Diapering in the Home,” “Coughing & Sneezing.”

EPA: “6 Steps for Safe & Effective Disinfectant Use.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How Often Should You Wash Your (Germ Magnet of a) Bath Towel?”

American Dental Association: “Oral Health Topics: Toothbrushes.”

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