Reviewed By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH
Ever see another kid wipe his runny nose on the back of his hand, then keep playing with your daughter? Cringe.
Kids do share a lot of germs. But you can teach children as young as 2 or 3 the habits to help them avoid catching or spreading a cold or the flu.
They will probably need some practice. “Teach them over and over,” says Denver pediatrician Jerry Rubin, MD, coauthor of Naturally Healthy Kids. It’s worth it.
Show your kids these five steps:
1. Wash your hands.
Hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent colds and flu.
Help your child lather up with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. To help her know how long that is, “sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice,” says Atlanta pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD.
Then have her rinse and dry hands well.
Let her know when to wash her hands. “I usually say wash after going to bathroom, before eating, after coming in from outside, after using a tissue, and when the hands look dirty,” Shu says.
If soap and water aren’t available, use hand sanitizer instead.
2. Use separate cups and utensils.
Kids often share drinks and nibbles. But when someone has a cold or the flu, that can spread viruses.
Rubin recommends never sharing food or drinks, even if no one is sick. That makes the habit stick. Remember, people are often contagious before they start coughing or sniffling.
The same goes for you. “Parents can set a good example by doing the same and practicing in front of their children,” says Yvonne Maldonado, MD. She is chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif.
3. Cough into your arm.
Teach your child to cough or sneeze into the crook of her arm, or inside of her elbow.
“In my opinion, the arm-crook sneeze/cough is the best public health invention since soap,” says pediatrician David Hill, MD, author of Between Us Dads: A Father’s Guide to Child Health.
Show your child how. They should find it simple and silly enough to copy.
4. Get enough rest.
Kids need to get enough sleep: 10 to 11 hours a night for school-age children (ages 5 to 10) and more for younger kids. That can help their immune system work well and help them recover faster from cold or flu, Rubin says.
When your child has the flu, she’ll probably want to sleep more. If she only has a cold and seems as active as ever, ask her to lie down and rest for a while, even if she doesn’t fall asleep. Calm background music may help.
Tell her, “Just like eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep helps your body stay strong and fight germs,” Shu says.
5. It’s OK to postpone a playdate.
Help your children understand that when they’re sick, they need to stay home. If they go to playdates, birthday parties, and other activities when they’re not feeling well, they can spread their germs.
“Teach them how to be a good citizen, that you occasionally don’t get to go to the ballgame because you’re sick, so you give your tickets to somebody else,” Rubin says.
If your child is healthy and her friend has the sniffles, remind her to wash her hands before and after the playdate, and ask her not to touch her friend’s hands.
“Ask them to come up with some ideas for games that don’t involve touch,” Hill says. “They’ll be more creative than you will!”