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Stop Those Germs!

"It's all a blur to me now."

That's how Anne-Marie Welsh, a mom of three, recalls last Thanksgiving at her house in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her husband was lying sick on the sofa, one child sick on the love seat, and the other sick in a sleeping bag on the family room floor. "If the drugstore had a prize for the most prescriptions ordered in a single day, I'd have won it. People in line behind me had to wait while I picked up eight different medications for everything from strep throat to ear infections to bronchitis."

Welcome to cold-and-flu season, family style. If it's not a single bug that takes out family member after family member, it's a single kid who catches germ after germ. You know the deal: Your child is barely recovering from a cold when he gets a stomach flu; still weak from the flu when he comes down with strep throat; just off the antistrep antibiotics when he gets another cold, which turns into an ear infection, which lasts until a new bout of sneezing announces yet another cold.

Toddlers and preschoolers catch six to ten colds and between one and four stomach viruses every year -- and those with siblings or in group care are even more prone to picking up viruses, says Tim Peters, M.D., a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical School, in Nashville. Factor in bacterial illnesses, like many ear infections, and you could be looking at months of sickness at a time.

Your kids will share their germs freely with you too, of course! Studies confirm what every mom knows: Once you have a kid, you're always catching something. The fact is, there's more to catch. Just when you've recovered from the cold your child brought from daycare, she's home with another. And while some viruses are contagious for only a day or two, others can be infectious for as many as five days before your child shows any symptoms of illness.

Fortunately, your family can break the cycle of colds and flu. With these simple measures, you and your kids can avoid sharing every bug that comes around:

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl can be found in Tennessee, often wiping the nose of one or more of her three kids.

Keep 'Em Clean

Get a flu shot -- for everyone. It's the single most effective measure to keep kids and parents healthy. October is the best time if they're available, but a shot by the end of November will still protect throughout the flu season. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises it for all children older than 6 months, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it for all adults except pregnant women in the first trimester.

Wash your hands. Because many viruses are spread by hand-to-mouth contact, frequent handwashing is key. As soon as a baby can reach out for objects, wash her hands often.

Make sure older kids wash before every meal. No need for special antibacterial agents -- lathering up with ordinary soap and warm water for at least ten seconds on both sides of the hand and between fingers will do the trick. "I tell Joey to sing the ABC song while he scrubs," says Vicki Penner of Lawrence, Kansas. "By the time we get to 'Z,' it's time to rinse. He's three and thinks it's really fun." She does turn the water off for soaping, though, and on again for rinsing. "If I leave it on, he'll just play in the water."

If someone in the house is already sick, make sure he washes his hands even more often than before meals. "I tell my four kids, 'If you sneeze on your hands, be sure to wash them before you open the refrigerator or touch the remote control so we don't all get sick,'" says Mike Toomey of Spencer, Massachusetts. When soap isn't handy, make do with wipes or gel cleansers, which are effective against both bacteria and viruses. (The rubbing action alone will kill many germs.) Anne-Marie Welsh keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse for trips to the grocery store, skating rink, movie theater -- "anywhere little hands are touching lots of surfaces." Such outings also tend to involve snacks, she says, "so the germs can go right from their hands to their mouth."

Tuck and Dodge

Keep baby hands tucked away. An infant's hands are almost irresistible to people -- kiss, kiss -- so tuck them under a blanket when venturing out. At home, ask adults to wash up before holding a new baby, and teach children not to touch her face, hands, pacifier, or bottle. Couch such requests in a positive way: When Max Breeden of Birmingham, Alabama, became a big brother last fall, his parents taught him that the place where baby George liked to be kissed the best was on his feet.

Teach your child to dodge germs. If you were a cold virus, you'd find that an easy way to get a free ride is for a sick child to cough or sneeze into her hands, then touch someone else, who then touches his own eyes or nose, says Margaret Stone, M.D., a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente and an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA.

So rather than teach a child to cover his mouth with his hands when he coughs, have him hold an arm up over his mouth and cough into the crook of his elbow or the back of his wrist. And if your healthy child has an itchy eye or nose, show her how to scratch with her knuckles, which may be less likely to carry germs than fingertips. And practice these tactics yourself, too.

A Separate Peace

Separate personal items. Cups, toothbrushes, and towels can harbor germs. Replace a child's toothbrush after he's had a cold or the flu, and especially after strep throat. Don't share cups, and wash them regularly in very hot water -- or use disposable ones.

When you wash your hands, soap and water remove only some germs; the rest are rubbed off when you dry them on a towel, says Dr. Stone. Now, is that a nice thing to share?

At our house, to avoid inadvertent borrowing, we color-code the bath towels -- one color for each of our three kids -- and launder them often in hot water.

Reconsider indoor play spaces. Some indoor playgrounds are carefully maintained (toys are washed frequently with soapy water); others aren't. It's tough to tell. If the call of the indoor jungle gym beckons, follow these rules: 1) Eat first, play later. 2) Wash hands before and after play. 3) If a clearly sick child arrives, leave.

Of course, no amount of vigilance will prevent you all from ever getting sick. But these measures might make this winter a little healthier. It may be normal for kids to catch six to ten colds a year, but it's easier if it's closer to six.