How to Help Your Kids Get Sick Less Often

Learn to Avoid Germs and Keep Your Kids Healthy

A sneeze spraying germs all over the place.
A typical sneeze can spray germs for just over 3 feet or more. Maartje van Caspel/Getty Images

Parents often wonder why their kids get sick so often, especially if they are in daycare or school.

It's usually no mystery though. The viruses and bacteria that get kids sick are really good at spreading through these groups of kids.

How Germs Spread

How do they spread so easily though?

  • fecal oral: germs from your stool can get on your hands when you go to the bathroom and can then be spread to other people, who may ingest the germs when they put contaminated items, especially food, in their mouth (hepatitis A, shigella, rotavirus).
  • respiratory droplets: germs, especially cold viruses and the flu, can be spread in respiratory droplets when you cough or sneeze, directly contaminating people who are nearby. (influenza, measles)
  • aerosols: spread further than respiratory droplets through the air and can be inhaled by others who are further away (tuberculosis)
  • fomites: you don't always have to have direct contact with someone to get sick. For example, someone with the flu might sneeze on their hand, touch a doorknob, placing their germs on the doorknob, which you then pick up when you touch it. You can also pick up certain germs by sharing contaminated toys, towels, water bottles, and hair brushes (head lice), etc.
  • blood: for some germs, direct sharing of contaminated blood and body fluids is required to spread infection (hepatitis B, HIV, Ebola).
  • pests: while we think of this method least often, many pests, including flies and rats can spread disease by contaminating our food (Salmonella, Staph food poisoning). Others spread when these pests bite you (Zika virus, Lyme disease).
  • contaminated food

No matter how good germs are at spreading though, understanding how they try to make us sick can greatly help you keep your kids healthy and germ free.

Standard Precautions to Avoid Germs

Germs are tiny.

You typically can't see them, which makes trying to avoid them hard.

And since many people are contagious even before they start to show symptoms, if you wait until someone is around you is sick to start taking precautions, it may be too late to avoid their germs.

That makes it important to practice some standard infectious disease control all of the time, even when everyone in your family is well. These might include:

  • regular handwashing
  • not touching your mouth or eyes (helps keep the germs out of your body)
  • not sharing cups and water bottles
  • cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, including kitchen counters, faucets, and doorknobs, etc.
  • practicing food safety
  • getting vaccinated on time

And most importantly, avoiding people who are obviously sick. That doesn't mean living in a bubble, but if you go to a crowded play area at a fast food restaurant in the middle of flu and RSV season, you can likely expect that your kids are going to be exposed to a lot of germs.


Go wash your hands!

How many times do parents tell their kids to wash their hands each day?

To make sure your kids are washing their hands properly, teach them to:

  1. Wet their hands with clean, preferably warm, running water.
  2. Apply soap to their wet hands.
  3. Rub their hands together for at least 20 seconds, making sure to scrub all of the surfaces of their hand, including between their fingers, the back of their hands, wrists, and under their fingernails too.
  1. Rinse their hands well under running water.
  2. Dry their hands using an air dryer or disposable paper towel.
  3. Turn off the water faucet with a disposable towel so that you don't get them dirty again.

Your kids could also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to wash their hands if they don't have soap and water, being sure to rub the sanitizer well over all surfaces of their hands.

Although you should encourage your kids to wash their hands whenever they are obviously dirty, proper hand washing is also important before they eat, after they go to the bath room, after touching a pet, after they cough or sneeze into their hands, and after they have contact with someone who is sick.

It is also important to wash your hands before cooking, after changing a child's diaper, and preparing raw food, etc.

Because of their high alcohol content, supervise young children who use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, so that they don't accidentally ingest them. sanitizer.

Remember, proper hand washing is an important way to stay healthy year round, helping your kids avoid cold and flu viruses, bacteria that can cause food poisoning and other infections, and germs they can get from their pets or other sick kids.

Cover Your Cough

You have likely taught your kids some basic etiquette rules or manners, such as how to behavior at the dinner table, the proper way to answer the phone, and that they should say please and thank you.

But have you taught them about cough etiquette?

Do they know that when they cough or sneeze they should:

  • cover their mouth or nose with a tissue that they then throw away
  • cover their mouth or nose with their elbow or upper sleeve if they don't have a tissue
  • wash their hands if they get contaminated with their respiratory secretions

Covering their coughs and sneezes helps prevent the spread of respiratory droplets that likely contain germs and can get everyone around them sick.

Why not just let them cough or sneeze into their hand? Because they will then place those germs on everything they touch.

New Germ Theory

While most of us still work hard to avoid germs, there is a new theory that says our quest to become clean has a major downside.

By reducing our exposure to so many germs, the hygiene hypothesis states that we have become more susceptible to allergic type diseases in early childhood, including asthma and eczema.

That doesn't mean that we should start being a lot more dirty though. Even if it did increase our risk for allergic type conditions, better hygiene greatly decreased our risk of dying in early childhood from many life-threatening germs.

What To Know About Avoiding Germs

Other things to know about avoiding germs include that:

  • Respiratory droplets can usually spread just over 3 feet, but can sometimes go much further.
  • The measles virus (via respiratory droplets) can remain infectious for up to two hours in a closed room
  • The flu virus can survive on many surfaces (fomites) for up to 2 or 3 days.
  • Antibacterial soaps, for example those with triclosan, don't necessarily get germs off of your hands any better than regular soaps.
  • When your kids wash their hands with soap and water, be sure they continue washing for at least 20 seconds, which is about the time it takes to sing 'Happy Birthday' twice.

And remember to stay home when you or your kids are sick. That doesn't mean staying home every time you have a runny nose or cough, but your kids should stay home if they have a fever, repeated vomiting, bloody diarrhea, mouth ulcers with drooling, impetigo, scabies, or if they are simply too ill to attend.

Just staying home when you are sick won't stop all germs from spreading though, as we all know. The problem is that you are contagious before you start having symptoms and you often remain contagious long after you get better. That makes practicing standard infectious infectious disease control precautions important all of the time if you really want to avoid getting sick.


Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases (Eighth Edition) - 2015.

Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases (Fourth Edition), Part I, 2012.

Bourouiba, Lydia. Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing. Journal of Fluid Mechanics, vol. 745, pp. 537-563.

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