Family Health Guide

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Cold & Flu: Prevention

Even though there's no cure for the cold or flu -- and your kid will probably catch a few in a year -- you can help your kid reduce their risk of getting sick. Methods for preventing colds and flu are keeping clean, boosting your kid's immune system, and getting a vaccine for the seasonal flu.

Keeping Germs Away

Hands down, the best way to prevent a cold or the flu is to keep your hands clean! The viruses that cause colds and flu are typically transferred from one's hand to the nose or mouth, where the viruses multiply -- and make you sick. The viruses are sneaky, too; they can make you contagious even before symptoms show. That's why it's so important to make sure to teach your kids to cover the mouth and nose with their armpit if they sneeze or cough, and to wash or sanitize their hands, especially before eating, after using the bathroom, sneezing or coughing, and after they come home from school or play dates.

Here are 4 germ-fighting tips to help keep your kids and home clean:

1. Scrub away germs: It's great to have your kid wash his hands for two rounds of "Happy Birthday", but also make sure he gets his hands good and sudsy, too; friction is what scrubs away the germs. Also keep your child's nails trimmed short -- less space for germs to cling to!

2. Use hand sanitizer when a sink's not around, but read the label carefully: An effective hand sanitizer needs to have at least 60 percent alcohol to kill bugs, says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University.

3. Spot-clean germ hotspots "It's not dirt that you are looking for, it's germs," says Tierno. "Paying attention to the high-traffic areas where germs linger, like countertops, phones, and doorknobs, is more important." This also includes wiping down the cart handle at the grocery store, using your own pen when signing receipts or checks while shopping, and bringing toys if you take your kids to the doctor -- an office full of sick kids have already touched the ones there. (Discover the germiest spots in your home.)

4. Wipes are super convenient, but they can also transfer bacteria from one surface to another. Use each wipe on only one surface, and then toss it.

Boosting Your Child's Immune System

Aside from keeping clean or getting the flu vaccine, having a healthy immune system is your kid's best bet in fighting off a cold or the seasonal flu. Kids can get an immunity boost from practicing basic healthy habits: eating well, staying active and getting enough sleep.

Eating Well

For a healthy diet, Dr. Sears recommends giving kids foods packed with phytonutrients ("phytos" for short). What kinds of foods have phytos? Look for the deepest-colored fruits and veggies you can find: blueberries, tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes…the more color in the food, the more phytos - and immune-boosting power- it has. And don't worry about always buying fresh fruits and veggies; canned and frozen varieties are still packed with phyto power (some, like canned tomatoes, have even more than fresh).

Kid won't touch fruits or veggies? A multi-vitamin can supply the vital nutrients. The AAP also recommends a vitamin D supplement for kids up to age 18 to help get the recommended 400 IU per day. Vitamin D, which can promote immune-system activity, is found in foods like eggs, milk, and yogurt, or sunlight exposure.

Stay Active

It's well known that regular exercise is beneficial, but Ray Sahelian, M.D., a family physician and author of The Common Cold Cure, says it can also help prevent catching a cold or the flu. "It's probably the single best way to keep your energy up and your stress level down, which is doubly important during cold and flu season," he says.

Plus, exercising outside will also expose kids to sunlight, which, during the winter months (the height of cold and flu season) is important, for physical and mental health. "Being outdoors in daylight for as little as twenty minutes a day can make a big difference in raising your energy level and preventing the winter blues," says Norman Rosenthal, M.D., director of seasonal studies at the National Institute of Mental Health and author of Winter Blues. Sunlight exposure also ups vitamin D intake, which is part of eating well.

If your child will be outside for an extended period of time, remember to apply sunscreen. However, Dr. Fisher says that it is both appropriate and safe to allow your child to be exposed to some sunlight for getting vitamin D.  

Sleep Time

Having a sleep-deprived kid on your hands isn't just frustrating -- it can also be unhealthy: "Some studies show that being sleep-deprived limits the body's natural killer-cell activity  -- white blood cells, which help battle disease," says Michael Bonnet, Ph.D., director of the sleep laboratory at the Dayton Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in OH. Make sure your child gets the recommended amount of sleep; normally, babies need approximately 14 hours, while toddlers require around 13.