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How to Stay Well When Your Kids Are Sick

Now that I'm a mom, I often wish I owned one of those head-to-toe protective suits that scientists wear when working with super-germs. In the past five years, my husband and I have battled everything from coughs and colds to pinkeye and stomach bugs  -- all seeming to have originated with our sons, ages 5 and 3.

If your child's in daycare or school, or you belong to a playgroup, there's only so much you can do to protect him from catching whatever's going around. And when he does catch it, you're at a real disadvantage simply by being in direct, regular contact with him. But are you doomed to get sick? Not necessarily. Keeping your immunity up in general puts you ahead of the game. Beyond that, taking steps to control the infection at the onset can actually up your odds of staying well (and keeping the rest of your family healthy). What you can do to stave off some common kid bugs:

Stomach bugs
The main culprit: the rotavirus, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea in kids under 5. It doesn't pose a threat to grown-ups because most have had it by early childhood, so you're not likely to get as severely ill as kids are. Two stomach bugs that can make adults sick are the Norwalk-like virus and giardiasis, a parasitic infection. Norwalk can produce low-grade fever, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea; it's found in uncooked foods, raw fruits and vegetables, and contaminated water. Daycare centers are common breeding grounds for the parasite that causes giardiasis. Symptoms include diarrhea and stomach cramps.

Infection control Because giardiasis is highly contagious and can stay in the stool for several weeks after the diarrhea's over, have your child wash her hands before every meal and make sure she doesn't share cups, utensils, snacks, toys, etc.

Self-defense Wash your hands thoroughly every time you change a diaper or help with a potty visit. Wipe potentially contaminated areas, including changing table, diaper bin, toilet, and favorite toys, with a solution of one part bleach to ten parts water a few times a day. Toss soiled clothing or linens into the laundry right away; regular detergent will do the trick.

Colds and flu

Before you became a mom, you might have sailed through the year with only an occasional cold. Now, any time your child has the sniffles, your own nose starts to run a few days later.

Infection control The standard advice bears repeating:

* Frequent hand-washing is crucial to keep germs of any kind from spreading. And regular soap is fine. The key to ridding hands of germs "is less about the soap and more about the friction you create by rubbing your hands back and forth for a good fifteen to twenty seconds," says Susan Coffin, M.D., medical director of infection prevention and control at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

* Don't let sick kids share cups, utensils, or snacks. With very bad colds and with the flu, try to limit close contact between sick kids and well ones: Let your runny-nosed toddler know it's fine to tell the baby he loves her, but hugs and kisses are out for a while. Separate baths are a good idea too, and it can't hurt to wipe down frequently-played-with toys with a sanitizing wipe at the end of the day.

* Teach your child to cough or sneeze into his elbow and to use a tissue to wipe his nose. Dirty tissues should be tossed immediately.

Self-defense When a child brings home a cold, back up when he coughs or sneezes: Viruses can't travel beyond about three feet, says Dr. Coffin. Your child's feelings won't be hurt if you explain why you're keeping your distance. Beyond that, a good offense  -- a strong immune system  -- is the best defense against colds and flu. To boost yours:

* Get enough sleep (at least seven or eight hours a night; if you're the mom of a baby or toddler, try to make up for lost shut-eye with naps).

* Eat five-plus servings of fruits and vegetables a day  -- especially those high in vitamin C, like oranges, kiwis, strawberries, and grapefruit, and easy-to-tote juices and dried fruits.

* Practice stress-relieving activities, like meditation, or even taking a walk or a hot-tea break.

* If you feel a cold coming on, eat more immunity-boosting food: Doing so won't stop the cold but may shorten its duration. "The minute one of my girls has a sign of a cold, I make soups with garlic, kale, and onions," says Montclair, New Jersey, mom Stephanie Finucane, whose kids are 4 and 2. "Kale has vitamin C, and garlic's good for the immune system, but I just tell them that the soup will make them feel better faster."

Coxsackie virus (a.k.a. hand, foot, and mouth disease)

While it tends to hit most often in summer and early fall, at first symptoms of this disease resemble a garden-variety cold: fatigue, sore throat, and fever. After a day or two, fluid-filled sores will start to develop on the hands, feet, in and on the mouth, and in some cases on the buttocks. These should crust over after five to seven days.

Infection control The Coxsackie virus is transmitted through saliva, mucus, and stool, so make sure your child practices sensible hygiene, including regular hand-washing and no sharing of cups or utensils  -- and toss favorite toys in the dishwasher or washer for a nightly cleaning.

Self-defense Your child's contagious as long as she's got sores and possibly for several weeks beyond, as the virus may linger in feces. Be diligent about hand-washing, especially after diaper changes or helping out at the potty. Hand-sanitizing gels and alcohol-based wipes will do.

Chicken pox

The varicella vaccine (recommended for all kids under 12) has brought about a significant drop in the number of hospitalizations and deaths from chicken pox. But even if your child gets the shot, it's not a guarantee he won't get the disease: One in five vaccinated kids will develop what's known as "breakthrough illness" when exposed to the virus. Even though this is a mild form of the disease, and usually without fever, it's still contagious. If you're not immune (you've never had chicken pox nor a vaccination against it), you could come down with a more severe case. In general, chicken pox poses a bigger threat to adults than to kids; grown-ups are more likely to be hospitalized or die of complications, including pneumonia or infection of the brain.

Infection control Until your child hasn't developed any new lesions for 24 hours and all of her existing blisters have crusted over, she's considered contagious. Make sure she washes her hands often and that she doesn't share any drinking glasses or utensils; see that she throws away used tissues promptly. Don't let her sleep in the same room with someone who's not immune.

Self-defense If you're not sure whether you've had chicken pox, but you know you've been exposed, get vaccinated right away. "If you do it within seventy-two hours, you have a decent chance of not getting sick. Within twenty-four hours is even better," says Dr. Coffin.

* Until then, minimize the amount of "air space" (infection-control lingo) you and your child share. Not only are her blisters contagious but so's her saliva. By simply talking, your child is contaminating the air. (If 100 nonimmune people were to simply walk through her bedroom, 90 of them would get sick.)

* Eating, playing, and snuggling with a sick kid puts you at risk until you're vaccinated (another reason to get that shot right away!)

* Put someone who's definitely immune in charge of such close-contact childcare duties as diaper changes, baths, and giving medicine.

* Keeping your distance is crucial if you're expecting. The vaccine isn't recommended during pregnancy, and your unborn baby is at risk of birth defects if exposed to the virus in utero. (The vaccine's fine if you're nursing. If you're thinking of getting pregnant, it's a good idea to have a blood test to determine whether you're immune to chicken pox. If not, get vaccinated before you conceive.)

* If getting childcare help isn't an option, wash your hands after every intimate encounter with your child. If you get chicken pox anyway, an antiviral medication such as acyclovir can shorten the course of the illness.

Strep throat

In older kids and grown-ups, strep causes a super-sore throat and swollen glands; infants and toddlers tend to get less sick, but symptoms  -- bloody nasal discharge, reduced appetite, and swollen glands  -- can still make them uncomfortable.

Infection control Once strep infects one child, everyone else in the family is an easy target. And strep can reinfect the same victim. Margaret Moxley, a mom of three boys in Nashville, learned that lesson the first time strep hit her family. "Right around the time the first kid to get sick was finishing his antibiotics, boy number two came down with it and in turn exposed the third child. Then boy number one got exposed again, and so forth."

After 24 to 48 hours on oral antibiotics, a child is no longer contagious. Until then, all the rules about not sharing towels, cups, and toys apply. If your child's on an antibiotic, make sure he takes it at regular intervals and that he finishes all of the medication. If not treated properly, strep can spread to other areas of the body and can lead to ear and sinus infections, or even rheumatic fever.

Self-defense For grown-ups, strep isn't as easily transmittable as, say, a cold, but it's most contagious before symptoms appear. During the three weeks that strep was cycling through her house, Moxley managed to stay well "by washing my hands till they bled and changing my clothes every time someone vomited in my vicinity." But despite all her precautions, the infection still snuck by her: Just as the family was leaving to visit her husband's family, her throat started to feel scratchy. "Three hours into the trip, I felt like my head was going to explode and my throat was on fire. My husband, who'd somehow escaped getting sick, actually had to make a detour to my parents' house; my mother took me right to her doctor, who diagnosed strep!"

So take the basic steps to prevent infection: Wash your hands frequently, especially after close contact with your child, even if he doesn't seem sick; if strep's going around, you're most likely to get infected before symptoms show up. If possible, avoid close, intimate contact with a sick kid until the antibiotics have kicked in.

Pinkeye (a.k.a. conjunctivitis)

There's no mistaking the telltale pinkish hue caused by conjunctivitis, a bacterial or viral infection of the inside of the eye. The infected eye (or eyes) might itch and ooze, which is why a yellowish crust often develops during sleep. But it is tough to distinguish between a bacterial infection (which will respond to antibiotics) and a viral one (which won't, but usually runs its course in seven to ten days). "If an eye is really red or pink, and there's a thick, yellowish discharge, it's likely the infection's bacterial and I'll go ahead and prescribe antibiotic drops. Usually the eye will clear up in three to five days," says Emmanuel Walter, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center. In some cases, an antibiotic ointment or oral antibiotics may be prescribed.

Infection control Make sure you:

* Keep your child from touching her face. Give her her own set of towels (and a separate washcloth just for her infected eye; holding a cool or warm cloth over an itchy or irritated eye can help it feel better), and change them each day. Be aware that any secretions from her nose or mouth will likely contain the offending germs, so remind her to cough or sneeze into her elbow.

* Put a ban on sharing drinks, food, or utensils, and limit close contact between siblings  -- no kissing, roughhousing, bathing, or napping together. See that your child washes her hands with soap and warm water before eating.

* Wipe off toys that are visibly soiled or that an infected child has shared with others with soap and warm water until the eye clears up. You can also put dirty playthings in the dishwasher or washing machine.

* Keep bedding clean, too. "When pinkeye made the rounds in my home, it meant my older kids missed days of school and I missed days of work," says JulieAnna Anastassatos, a mom of four in Reno, Nevada. "I tried to get by with changing the kids' sheets every other day, but when I realized that we were going on three weeks where at least three of the five of us had pinkeye, I started changing at least the pillowcases every day. If I'd been more vigilant from the get-go, it might have shortened the course of the pinkeye."

Self-defense If you put drops in your child's eyes, wash your hands thoroughly afterward.


Maureen Connolly is the coauthor of The Essential C-Section Guide.

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