Hacking all night long. Noses that drip more often than a leaky faucet. The dreaded stomach bug. Dealing with illness is a nonstop job when you've got kids and stopping the spread of germs can feel like mission impossible. "When a child comes home with virus on her hands, within four hours that virus is on 90 percent of the surfaces in that home," says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who has made a career out of germ warfare. Yikes! But before you throw in the hand towel, know this: There are ways to squash those buggers. While we can't promise all your days will by symptom-free, these doctor-approved, stay-heathy-secrets will help keep your whole family humming.
Wash those hands—then use sanitizer too
You know that frequent hand washing is the first and most effective defense against germs, but that alone is not enough. "Most people—kids and adults—don't wash their hands long enough or thoroughly enough to kill all the germs," says Dr. Gerba. "You need to wash for a minimum of 20 seconds, but research shows most people only do it for 11 seconds." Teach your kids to keep at it—use a timer or sing Happy Birthday from beginning to end twice—and make sure the soap and water reach the back of the hands, between the fingers, and under the nails. Then, apply a hand sanitizer afterward to kill any germs left behind. An alcohol-based sanitizer is most effective, but alcohol-free versions are still helpful if you prefer them.
"Our research shows that adding hand sanitizer to your routine between one and three times a day cuts down on contamination in the home by more than 90 percent," Dr. Gerba notes. It also helps to use liquid soap because germs can remain on soap bars, and to dry hands on a disposable paper towel or designate a specific hand towel for each family member. The most important time to wash and sanitize hands: Whenever a family member comes home from somewhere else: school, work, the backyard or playground, a birthday party—you get the idea—because they're bringing new germs home with them. Other times to wash:
Disinfect as often as you can
Ask anyone where the germiest place in the house is and they'll likely say the toilet seat, but the kitchen counter, sink, and sponge are actually worse because they harbor germs from meat and produce as well as our hands. Clean them frequently with disinfecting wipes or sprays, and use paper towels instead of sponges to wipe down counters—ditto for bathroom surfaces. Replace kitchen sponges often and microwave them for one to two minutes in between. Don't forget shower sponges either—those cute poufs you use to clean yourself and your kids with get pretty nasty.
And that's not all: "Electronics can be hotbeds for the spread of germs," says New York City pediatrician Dyan Hes, M.D. "Even in months when colds and flu are less likely, it is good practice to use disinfectant wipes on the devices and controllers frequently." The worst culprit in this category may be your family's cell phones because they travel everywhere, making the germs they carry more mobile as well. Old-fashioned, low-tech toys need sanitizing too: Launder soft toys in the washing machine, others in a dishwasher or use disinfectant wipes, especially after a child in the house has been sick. More icky things to clean and disinfect often:
Clear the air
There's a reason winter is the sick season: Everyone's cooped up in close proximity and heaters recirculate the same contaminated air. Take advantage of unseasonably warm days and open windows to air out your house, says Dr. Hes, and when you can't do that, an air purifier is the next best option. Just be sure to get a model with a HEPA filter and change it as often as the manufacturer recommends, otherwise it will spew the same pathogens back into the air instead of cleaning it. A humidifier is another good choice because dry air allows germs to survive longer—and the moister air will also help relieve coughs and congestion.
Never share drinks or utensils
"We all have mouths teeming with bacteria and viruses even when we seem well," notes Denver pediatrician Nancy Broady Lataitis, M.D. "A bad germ might not cause symptoms for another 24 hours, as it incubates. And while you may have antibodies to that germ that keep you from getting sick, the family member who just took a sip might not have the same protection. Do the very best you can to avoid sharing drinks, utensils, or objects that come into contact with saliva. And please don't pop that pacifier in your mouth to 'clean it' before giving it to your baby!" Dr. Lataitis also recommends sending kids to school with their own water bottle so they can avoid the drinking fountain.
Eat and drink these…not that
A healthy diet keeps the immune system strong so it can fight off infections from bacteria and viruses, says Robert Danoff, D.O., a family medicine physician in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and program director of the Family Practice and Emergency Medicine Residencies at Aria–Jefferson Health in Philadelphia. Lean proteins and a colorful diet featuring lots of fresh fruits and vegetables provides a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Drinking plenty of water is also key: Staying hydrated has a huge impact on the immune system because it helps carry oxygen to cells so the body functions properly, allows the kidneys to flush out toxins, and produces lymph, a fluid that carries infection-fighting white-blood cells throughout the body. Minimizing your family's sugar intake is also essential to staying healthy. "Excess sugar contributes to chronic inflammation in the body, which, in turn, lowers the immune system's ability to fight off illness," notes Dr. Danoff. Naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables are fine. It's the added sugars in beverages, processed foods, and sweet snacks that are the problem. Check labels for sugar content and try to keep everyone's sugar consumption to 25 grams (6 teaspoons) a day or less.