Sometimes the warning begins with a cough or just a sneeze. Or maybe the voice starts to gravel thanks to an irritated throat. In some cases, there’s the unsettling moment when a fever starts out of nowhere. Eventually the line is delivered: “I don’t feel so good.” Parents know this one-line plea means that cold and flu season has hit the homefront.

Influenza is one of the biggest health concerns during the fall and winter, colds and other upper respiratory illnesses run rampant as the weather cools. For parents with school-age kids, this means that those yucky bacteria and viruses tend to spread in the classrooms. A sneeze can send germs flying onto desks, computers and other surfaces. And if kiddos aren’t using hand sanitizer or washing their hands, colds and other illnesses including the flu can spread easily.

Influenza can lead many of us to feeling just plain awful for a week and missing a few days from work, but for those most at risk—including young children, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems—the flu can be much more devastating. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 185 children died because of influenza-related issues during the 2017-2018 flu season.

So what is the most dangerous time for influenza? The CDC notes that flu season often starts to amp up in October but can last until May. Each year, there is a month that has the most flu cases, and this is noted as the ‘peak.’ However, the peak may change each season. February is the most common month for flu peaks, followed by December and March. But just because a month holds the largest number of cases doesn’t mean that the flu has disappeared completely.

While parents can’t always keep every germ at bay, there are ways to teach children good health habits that may lower their risk for flu and other illnesses. Here are some different ways to keep your family healthy during cold and flu season.

Vaccinations

The CDC states that “annual influenza vaccination is the best method for preventing flu and its potentially severe complications in children.” But not every vaccine is right for every child. Some individuals also can’t get the flu shot, specifically babies less than 6 months of age and those with “severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine.” Always talk to your pediatrician about what flu vaccine is best, especially if your child (or you!) has an egg allergy, Guillain-Barré Syndrome or is currently battling an illness.

Each year’s vaccine formulation targets strains of both influenza A and B. The CDC has a detailed explanation regarding how the virus strains in the vaccine are determined.

Wash Those Hands!

Kids can be messy and lax about washing their hands or covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Teaching good hygiene and healthy habits is imperative to keeping their germs away from other children (and adults!) and helping them stay well.

Hand washing during cold and flu season is a must! Everyone should wash their hands after using the restroom. But, according to WebMD, healthy habits also mean washing before eating, after eating, when kids get home from school and, obviously, after touching anything yucky (garbage, dirt, raw meat and produce). If kids are sneezing or coughing into their hands…usher them to a sink to wash off those germs!

Handling pets also requires hand washing. Some reptiles can harbor bacteria, and dogs and cats may have germs or allergens on their fur.

Cover that Cough & Sneeze

Kids (and adults) should never sneeze or cough into hands. While we may use hand sanitizer or wash hands after spreading germs into our hands, often it’s too late to stop the spread as we’ve already touched something before we reach a faucet. Never use hands to catch those germs! Instead, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm…and teach kids to do this, too! The CDC also recommends using a tissue when sneezing or coughing.

Don’t Send Sick Kids to School

Every parent has a comfort level about fever range and the ability for a child to go to school. Today’s Parent notes that a child who has a fever of 101.4 should stay home.  But even if your child doesn’t have an elevated temperature, vomiting and diarrhea can mean that they have a gastrointestinal illness that also could be contagious. Often, parents are the best judges of their child’s health. Use common sense before sending your child on the bus and into the classroom. Because those germs can spread like wildfire!

A Good Night’s Sleep is Important

A rested body is one that’s prepped for the day. But not enough sleep can impact the immune system and make the body more susceptible to an illness. Kids and adults need a good night’s sleep. So how much sleep is sufficient? Kids and adults need different doses of sleep; according to the National Sleep Foundation, most kids (ages 6 to 13) need about 9 to 11 hours each night, but adults typically should clock between seven and nine hours. Younger children need much more sleep, and seniors need less.

If you or your children aren’t getting enough shut-eye, this could have an impact on your health. To make sure everyone is ready to start the morning, enforce a family quiet time. This should be a time when everyone begins to prepare for bed and decompress from the day. If kids need to wake up at 7 a.m., set quiet time for 7 p.m. (or earlier/later depending on how long kids need to wind down before sleeping). Quiet time is when bath and pre-sleep routines should begin; brush teeth, read books and then turn off the lights. Bedtimes/quiet time can be tricky, as parents shouldn’t assume that once the lights go out kids immediately fall asleep. If your child needs nine hours of sleep, don’t set the bedtime or start quiet time exactly nine hours before the alarm blares.

So what if your child has a really hard time winding down or falling asleep? Some kids might take awhile to fall into a restful sleep; everyone is unique. And maybe the day was extra exciting and amped them up. Reading may help kids calm down. Parents can read a book or let kids read quietly in bed before turning out the lights. However, avoid giving kids tech gadgets or letting them watch television. The blue light emitted from screens makes it more difficult to fall asleep.

Eat Right

How we feed our bodies may keep us healthier. Nourishing the body with healthy choices like a variety of fruits, veggies and lean meats can prep the immune system to do battle with viruses and bacteria. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit and even in strawberries. But our bodies need many other vitamins, minerals and nutrients to stay in tip-top health.

Some kids are picky eaters, so serving up kale or other green leafy veggies may be a no-go. But you also can hide those good greens in sauces and smoothies! Offer kids a variety of hues for their plate—choose different fruits to mix up the tastes.

Meats also may be a touch-and-go taste for kids. Some hate certain textures, or your family may live a vegan lifestyle. Nuts are a great source of protein and so are beans! If you’re concerned that your child isn’t eating a well balanced diet, talk to your pediatrician for advice.

Adults, though, just may need to adjust eating habits to ensure proper nutrition. Eating out isn’t always the best choice, especially if you opt for fast food. But the days at work can be long, and it’s easy to get into a food routine. Try to cook at home and plan meals ahead of time. You also can start your own garden to keep produce costs lower; plus, homegrown veggies seem to taste so much better!

Don’t Forget Well Exams

Kids should have a yearly physical (or ‘well exam’), and, depending on the time of the visit, this also could be the time when you schedule your flu shot. Adults may opt for a yearly visit, too; this is especially important if there are health issues in the family. Many health insurance plans cover a yearly well exam. Review your plan and understand your coverage so you can maximize your benefits.

Fall and winter are prime periods for coughs, colds, the flu and other illnesses. And while we can’t keep all germs away all the time, there are many ways to stay on top of our physical health to possibly lower the risk of infection. A flu vaccine is the best way to lower the risk of contracting the flu, but parents should discuss what vaccine is appropriate for their child. Proper nutrition and getting enough sleep also may help ward off infection. When kids get sick, parents should use common sense when sending sick kids to school; vomiting and diarrhea also may be signs of other contagious viruses. Adults also shouldn’t push themselves to head to work if they have a fever. Proactive measures also play a part in good health, and parents should schedule a yearly well child exam to stay on top of any health concerns. Of course, kids and adults also should practice good hygiene year-round; wash hands, cover a sneeze and cough and teach kids to do the same! Because no one wants you to share those yucky germs!

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