5 Tips From Doctors to Keep Your Family from Getting Sick

We asked the pros for the stay-healthy secrets that will keep your family (mostly) symptom-free.

Mother Helps Child Wash Hands
Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

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 impossible. "When a child comes home with a virus on her hands, within four hours, that virus is on 90% of the surfaces in that home," says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Yikes!

But before we get to these doctor-approved, stay-heathy-secrets that will help keep your whole family humming, it is important to understand a few key terms first. Did you know that disinfecting and sanitizing are two different things?

Disinfecting, Sanitizing, and Cleaning

People often use the words disinfect, sanitizer, and cleaning interchangeably, but these terms mean specific things, and knowing the difference can help you keep a germ-free home.

Which Cleaning Products Should You Use?
Type   How It Cleans What to Look For
Disinfectant Chemical that kills both viruses and bacteria. Look for products that contain alcohol, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide.
Sanitizer Chemical or hot water kills only bacteria but not viruses.  Look for products that say "sanitizer" on the label. Use a dishwasher to sanitize some objects.
Surface Cleaner or Surfactants Physically removes dirt and debris like dust, soil, and particles. Soaps, cleaning sprays, and detergents.
Hand Sanitizer Kills pathogens on the skin. Look for hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol to kill viruses and bacteria.

Tip #1 Wash Your 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 and ensure 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 the most effective, but alcohol-free versions are still helpful if you prefer them.

Hand Washing Tip

To make sure that your child is washing their hands for a complete 20 seconds—and killing those germs—use a timer or sing "Happy Birthday" from beginning to end twice.

"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%," Dr. Gerba notes. It also helps to use liquid soap because germs can remain on soap bars. 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 important times to wash

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Tip #2 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 worse because they harbor germs from meat and produce and 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 between uses. Don't forget shower sponges either—those cute poufs you use to clean yourself can get pretty nasty.

If that seems like a lot of work, consider this: in a surprising study, researchers found that microwaving a kitchen sponge killed more bacteria than chemical applications including bleach, lemon, and deionized water alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 48 million Americans get sick every year from foodborne illnesses. So, keeping your kitchen as clean as possible is an important defense against illness.

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.

Old-fashioned, low-tech toys need sanitizing too: Launder soft toys in the washing machine, and others in a dishwasher, or use disinfectant wipes, especially after a child in the house has been sick.

More germy things to clean and disinfect often

  • Door handles
  • Stove knobs
  • Refrigerator and microwave handles
  • Faucet handles
  • Light switches
  • Toothbrush holders
  • Purses
  • Backpacks
  • Bath towels
  • Pet bowls and toys

Tip #3 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.

Indoor Air Contaminants

According to the American Lung Association, indoor air can be hazardous to your health if not maintained properly. Here are a few ways to keep your air clean:

  • Prevent mold from growing on surfaces.
  • Avoid smoking indoors.
  • Cut down on dust and pet dander with regular vacuuming.
  • Regularly clean carpets and upholstery.
  • Ventilate when painting, cooking, or kicking up dust from moving furniture.

Grow Some Houseplants

NASA conducted a study that showed houseplants can improve indoor air quality by efficiently removing contaminants. Just be careful when choosing houseplants since some are toxic to pets.

Tip #4 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 your best 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 bottles so they can avoid the drinking fountain.

Tip #5 Eat and Drink These…Not That

A healthy diet keeps the immune system strong to 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 provide 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. The added sugars in beverages, processed foods, and sweet snacks are the problem. Check labels for sugar content and keep everyone's sugar consumption to 25 grams (6 teaspoons) a day or less.

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