You remember last year. Your child came home from school wiping their nose and running a fever, so you quickly grabbed a thermometer and tissue. Well, it’s almost that time of year again: cold and flu season. Instead of enduring another year like the last, now is the perfect time to learn how colds and the flu are spread and what you can do to boost your child’s immune system.
How Cold and Flu Germs Spread
Viruses that cause the common cold can spread through the air, on contaminated surfaces, and by close personal contact. For example, your child could catch a cold when playing with another child who is contagious, or by touching objects that have viruses on them and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. Most of the time, symptoms of a cold begin to appear within one to three days after exposure to a virus.
Most healthcare professionals agree that the flu virus spreads when people with the virus sneeze, cough, or talk—and airborne particles from the infected person land in the mouth or nose of someone nearby. Flu germs can spread up to six feet in this manner. Similar to colds, the flu may be contracted when a person touches an object with the virus on it, and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
Children can pass the flu on to healthy people even before they feel sick. In fact, they can infect others from one day before they experience symptoms to one week after they start feeling ill. Most symptoms appear within one to four days after a child is exposed to the flu virus, but two days is the average.
Tips to Help Your Kids Stay Cold- and Flu-Free
You can’t always prevent your kid from coming in contact with colds and flu viruses, but there are a few ways you can help reduce the chance they’ll get sick.
Get the flu vaccine. There is no vaccine for the common cold, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting the flu vaccine is the best way to protect your family from the flu. Studies show that the vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness by approximately 50%–60% for the general population, and possibly more for one- to fifteen-year-old children. The vaccine may help minimize their symptoms and possibly shorten the illness, but it isn’t recommended for anyone younger than six months old.
Did you know? Flu protection typically starts about two weeks after vaccination.
Make hand-washing a household rule. When performed correctly, hand-washing is a very effective way to prevent the spread of colds and the flu. The American Public Health Association recommends that you teach your child to scrub all areas of their hands and wrists vigorously with soap and water for at least twenty seconds. This is about how long it takes to sing two rounds of “Happy Birthday.” Supervise young children while they wash their hands and caution older kids against using hot water that may scald them.
Did you know? Germs can hide under your child’s fingernails—so it’s best to keep them trimmed short.
Use hand sanitizerwhen soap and water aren’t available. When your kids aren’t near a sink, hand sanitizer is a great alternative to soap and water. Apply a dime-sized amount to your child’s palm, and tell them to rub their hands together for about thirty seconds. Be sure your child spreads the sanitizer on both sides of their hands, between their fingers, and around their fingernails. They shouldn’t touch anything until their hands are completely dry. If your child’s hands are visibly dirty, hand sanitizer won’t be effective—wash their hands instead. Never allow young children to use hand sanitizer unsupervised.
Clean objects your family touches often. Common colds are the number one reason children miss school. Although it’s impossible to keep your house germ-free, you can help prevent the spread of colds and the flu by cleaning objects that your children come in contact with frequently—such as doorknobs, faucets, and remote controls. As the hub of most homes, the kitchen is often a breeding ground for germs. Be sure to clean countertops and eating surfaces regularly. Disposable disinfecting wipes kill the vast majority of common viruses and bacteria, so keep a few containers on hand and wipe down high-traffic areas often.
A healthy immune system can help strengthen your child’s defenses against colds and the flu. Here are a few ways to give your kids an immunity boost.
Feed your kids phytonutrient-rich foods. Certain foods contain phytonutrients that may enhance your child’s immune system. Blueberries, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes are just a few examples of phytonutrient-rich foods. If you can’t buy these fruits and veggies fresh, don’t worry—canned and frozen varieties offer similar benefits.
Encourage your kids to play outside. Regular exercise can boost your child’s energy and lower their stress—both of which may help them fend off sickness. Playing outside also exposes your child to sunlight, which can increase their vitamin D intake. That’s important because vitamin D may help protect against the flu.
Ensure your children get sufficient sleep. Just like eating right and exercising, adequate sleep helps your child stay strong and fight off viruses. Every child’s sleep requirements are slightly different, but the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that toddlers get ten to thirteen hours of sleep every day, school-age kids should sleep between nine and twelve hours daily, and teenagers should sleep eight to ten hours.
If prevention didn’t work and your child is exhibiting any signs of a cold or the flu, keep them home from school and away from other family members until you are sure they are no longer contagious. Here are the cold and flu symptoms commonly exhibited by children.
Common Flu Symptoms
Common Cold Symptoms
Runny or stuffy nose
Runny or stuffy nose
Vomiting or diarrhea: uncommon, though may occur in children
Fever or chills: not everyone with the flu will have a fever
When to Take Your Child to the Doctor
If you’re concerned about your child’s health, contact their pediatrician immediately. You may want to give the doctor a call if your child has any of these flu symptoms and is under five years old or has any pre-existing medical conditions.
Most children with colds do not need to see a doctor, unless they are extremely fussy, unusually drowsy, lacking an appetite, wheezing, or experiencing worsening symptoms. If your child has ear pain, a severe headache or cough, or a rising fever, they may also need to go to the doctor. In babies under twelve weeks old, a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or above necessitates an immediate trip to the doctor.
*SafeWise has conducted impartial research to recommend these tips. SafeWise does not guarantee that these methods will prevent colds or the flu. Each individual’s unique needs should be considered when deciding on prevention methods.
Written by Alexia Chianis
Wanderlust junky and mom of two, Alexia is a former police officer and U.S. Army Captain who draws on her experiences to write about a myriad of safety topics. Learn more