When Kids Are Sick: How to Prevent Germs from Spreading

Want to prevent viruses from spreading in your home? These quick tips from the pros may help.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 16, 2011
7 min read

Taking care of a sick toddler isn’t fun. But taking care of two sick children is worse. It means more misery and sleepless nights -- and for you, more missed days of work.

So short of ordering everyone into hazmat suits, what are you supposed to do the next time one of your kids comes home from daycare flushed and feverish? How can you protect the rest of the family and prevent germs from spreading?

“I know some parents who just give up,” says says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, a pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls:Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers. “They assume that once the virus is in the house, everyone’s going to get it. But there are some precautions that can help.”

Containing a virus isn’t easy -- especially within a family. But here’s some advice from pediatricians and experts on infectious disease on how to prevent germs from getting the rest of the family sick.

Get your kids to wash their hands. Yes, this one should be obvious. But it really can’t be stressed enough: hand washing is a crucial way to prevent germs from spreading. About 80% of infectious diseases are spread by touch.

“Two of the most important things we’ve done in medicine are getting people vaccinated and getting them to wash their hands,” says Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, professor of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Disease.

When you have a sick toddler, germs can get absolutely everywhere. That means that your healthy child is bound to pick them up on their hands. But as long as they are washing their hands regularly, the germs might not make it from their hands into their eyes or mouth.

If kids are going to wash their hands, teach them to do it right. Experts recommend scrubbing hands for 20 seconds or so -- as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. The type of soap doesn’t matter -- to prevent germs, the regular stuff will work just as well as antibacterial soap.

When warm water and soap aren’t available, use an alcohol-based sanitizing gel -- just make sure to rub your hands together vigorously for about 20 seconds until the gel evaporates.

Wash your own hands. To prevent germs from spreading, the same advice goes for you too. Don’t get so focused on wiping down your sick toddler’s toys that you forget to wash your own hands. It’s important for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t want to get sick -- taking care of a sick toddler while being sick yourself can be punishing.

But second, if you’re not washing your hands, you could actually be the one who infects your healthy child -- even if you don’t get sick. All it might take is for you to pick up your sick toddler’s tissues and then make your healthy kid’s lunch. Bingo: you’ve got two sick children.

Step up your disinfecting. Even if you’re not germ-obsessed usually, now might be a time to focus more on disinfecting surfaces in your home. It can help prevent germs from spreading.

“I think when one child is sick, some extra sanitizing around the house can definitely help prevent other family members from getting it,” Altmann tells WebMD.

What should you do? You could wipe off surfaces that your sick toddler has touched -- like doorknobs, tables, and handrails -- with a disinfectant. Many plastic toys can be thrown in the dishwasher, and many stuffed animals in the washing machine. If your sick toddler is suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, take extra care to disinfect the toilet, floor, and sink in the bathroom.

That said, don’t make yourself crazy in your attempts to prevent germs from spreading. You don’t want to spend your days following your sick toddler around the house, spraying everything in their wake with disinfectant. Besides, it won’t work. There’s no way that you’ll be able to eradicate all of the germs anyway.

Practice good diaper hygiene. Be especially careful with dirty diapers now -- particularly if you have more than one kid wearing them. The changing table could be a spot where your kids exchange germs. So you could decide to use the changing table only for your sick toddler and change your healthy kid somewhere else. Or you could always lay a fresh blanket over the changing pad when putting a diaper on your healthy child.

Don’t allow sharing at meals. Mealtimes may usually be chaotic, with your kids regularly swapping silverware, cups, and food. For now, do what you can to prevent that.

Keep the bathroom hygienic. While germs generally don’t live on towels very long, they can live long enough to make a healthy kid sick. So launder them regularly. You may even want to switch to disposable paper towels for a week to prevent germs from infecting other family members. By the same token, consider replacing the bathroom water glass with disposable paper cups for a while. And get your child a new toothbrush after they have been sick.

Consider a quarantine? Obviously, you can’t imprison a sick toddler in their room until they are better. But you can try to reduce the contact between your sick kid and your healthy one.

“You can try to separate your kids a bit,” says Altmann. “For instance, you might try to keep them playing in separate rooms more than usual.”

Still, it’s often not feasible and your kids may resist. If that’s the case, don’t worry, says Laura A. Jana, MD, a pediatrician and coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn and Food Fights. As long as your kids aren’t getting in each other’s faces -- and everyone’s washing their hands -- it shouldn’t be a big deal. “It’s fine to have your sick child sitting with his siblings in the same room watching a movie,” Jana tells WebMD.

What if you or your spouse is the sick one? How can you protect your kids?

  • Focus on washing your hands.Hand washing is the key way to prevent germs from spreading. You should be doing it regularly anyway, but step it up when you’re sick. If you’re laid out on the couch, keep a container of antibacterial gel in your robe pocket and apply it before touching the kids.
  • Dispose of your tissues. Before you had kids, you might have spent sick days on the couch with a pile of used tissues on the floor next to you. That’s not a good idea now. Throw your tissues directly into a trashcan nearby -- preferably one with a lid or one that’s placed off the floor.
  • Keep breastfeeding. Some women worry about breastfeeding when they have a cold or stomach virus -- will it make the baby sick? But experts say that breastfeeding when you have a run-of-the-mill virus is a good idea; in fact, the antibodies you pass on might help protect your baby from getting sick.
  • Avoid preparing food -- if you can. It’s not always an option, but if you can have your spouse, older child, or other family member take over the meal preparations and lunch packing for a few days, it’s a good idea. If you have to prepare meals, just be very careful to wash your hands before and during cooking.
  • Take precautions, but don’t go overboard. Short of leaving the house for a week, how else can you reduce the odds that your kids will get your cold? You can try to make a few minor adjustments to prevent germs from spreading. For instance, you could kiss your kids on their heads rather than their cheeks for a few days. You could ask your spouse to do bedtime stories and baths for a few nights. But obviously, you can’t be so careful in your efforts to prevent germs from spreading that you feel like you’re shunning your kids.

While trying to prevent germs from infecting the rest of the family is a noble goal, remember that the odds are against you. Even if you’re careful, once a virus is in the house, it’s very hard to contain.

“When one of my kids gets sick, I always try to prevent it from spreading to the other,” says Altmann. “But three out of four times, the other one gets it anyway.”

Frenck agrees. “Remember that with a lot of these diseases, you’re contagious before you even have any symptoms,” he tells WebMD. Even if you take every possible precaution the moment you notice that your baby is feverish, it may already be too late. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re unable to prevent germs from spreading in your home.

“Parents aren’t being bad parents if their kids get colds, or ear infections, or diarrhea,” says Frenck. “It just happens.”