Every parent expects her child to get sick sometimes. After all, you'd get sick too if you spent the bulk of your days crawling on dirty playground equipment, drinking out of your friends' cups of juice, and touching (or mouthing!) every little thing that grabs your attention. And while little kids typically aren't big fans of sharing, when it comes to spreading bacteria and viruses, they're extremely generous: According to a recent study from the University of Arizona, a woman's chances of getting sick double when she becomes a mother. So how can you stay healthy this season when you're constantly playing nurse to your sniffling, sneezing kid? All you have to do is put our brilliant germ-fighting game plan to work.
We know you've heard the "wash your hands" tip a million times before, but that's because it works. If you do it frequently, you can reduce the odds you'll catch your child's cold by 30 to 50 percent. A quick rinse doesn't count; follow the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scrub your hands for 20 seconds. For added insurance, rub a moisturizing, alcohol-based hand sanitizer on your hands post-wash when your child has come down with something. (Soap helps rinse away many types of bacteria and viruses, but hand sanitizer will kill any germs that soap left behind.) Stock up on mini bottles of sanitizer to keep in your bag too—kids have a knack for sneezing on you the minute you're nowhere near a sink. Doing all this may sound obsessive, but considering that most infections are spread through hand-to-hand contact, the extra effort is worth it.
Your child may like coloring at the kitchen table or banging on pots and pans, but you should encourage him to hang out somewhere else when he's sniffling. "The kitchen is one of the germiest rooms in the house," says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist who studies soil, water, and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Bacteria can survive on countertops and tables, so your child's germs could easily be transferred to your food and make everyone sick." At the very least, don't let him help himself to food in the refrigerator. People open the fridge door more often than any other one in the house, making the handle the perfect germ-swapping spot. Plus, bacteria breed there easily, since many people hang damp, food-spattered dish towels over the handle.
Using your washer's cold-water cycle is an earth-friendly move, but when your kid is sick you have Mother Nature's okay to use hot H2O. Why? Hot water kills more germs than cold, says Dr. Gerba. Switching makes a difference: "Studies show that people who wash clothes in hot water miss fewer days of work and their children have fewer sick days from school," says Harley A. Rotbart, M.D., author of Germ Proof Your Kids. When your child is ill, do as much of her laundry as possible in hot water and chlorine bleach to kill germs. (When washing darks in hot water, add a non-chlorine, colorfast bleach; this kind of bleach isn't a germ-killer, but it protects against fading and running.) Avoid touching your nose and mouth while you do the laundry. Remember, you're handling germy stuff like the shirt your child used as a tissue. Scrub your hands when you're done, and sanitize the washing machine between loads by running an empty hot cycle with bleach.
We know it sounds totally unrealistic, but try to put some distance between you and your kid when you can. Fortunately, you don't have to quarantine yourself, since viruses can't travel beyond three feet, according to research from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Try using hands-off ways to soothe your child—create a hand signal that means "hug," blow kisses, or simply say "I love you" more often. If you can't resist giving him a kiss, aim for his forehead or the top of his head instead of his mouth, says Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Also okay: letting him curl up in your bed. "No one's sure why, but there's only a one-in-a-thousand chance of contracting germs from a blanket," says Dr. Gerba. Just don't snuggle up with him—you don't want to be in the path of your kid's coughs and sneezes.
You try to teach your kid to be generous, but when she gets sick with a cold or the flu, selfishness is a plus. "Viruses and bacteria can survive anywhere from one hour to a few days on a moist surface, so don't your let children share toys, towels, or even a tube of toothpaste if one of them gets sick," says Dr. Rotbart.
Your cabinets are probably stocked with every type of cleaning product, but some are better than others when it comes to killing your sick kid's germs. Here's the dirt on getting clean: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you should use a cleanser with an EPA registration number and the word disinfectant on the label. That means the product contains the big guns of germ fighting, like ammonia or bleach, and has met the government's standards for effectiveness. Use it to scrub spots that everyone in the family touches—the phone, toilet handle, remote control, and doorknobs—a few times a day when your child is sick to keep his germs contained.
Even if they're scattered all over your house, let them be. You'll slash your risk of getting sick if you wait to tackle your child's germy toys when he's well. (He'll re-infect them every time he plays with them, so why keep touching his germs when it's not necessary?) Once your kid is feeling better, attack his stuff using Dr. Tierno's bug-fighting routine: Clean them with peroxide or white vinegar, wash them with soap and hot water, then rinse in peroxide or vinegar. "It sounds like a lot of work, but it's the best way to prevent germs from spreading," he says.
Bacteria and viruses can lurk just about anywhere, but they really love to hang out on some of the stuff parents have to touch constantly.