You love your kids – but every parent knows that kids tend to be walking, talking germ factories, especially in winter.

With the cold and flu season in full swing (and the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 now rapidly spreading) it’s more important than ever to do what you can to keep your kids and your home as healthy as possible.

After all, a bad cold, a bout of the flu or a period stuck at home in quarantine because of COVID aren’t just miserable experiences: They’re also a major disruption to your home life, work and school. The juggling act working parents have to go through when they have a child sick at home is frustrating enough – and it gets worse when the parents get sick, too.

Where do you even start? We have a few ideas.

Invest in Preventive Medicine

Prevention really is worth a pound of cure, especially when it comes to the viruses that cause colds, flus and other airborne diseases. Make sure that your children have all their regular vaccinations at the appropriate times – and that includes a yearly flu shot.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, children should start getting their yearly flu vaccine when they’re 6 months old. (Ideally, they should have the flu shot in October, but late is definitely better than “never,” so don’t hesitate to get those shots now, if you missed them earlier.) Vaccinations for COVID-19 are now also recommended for children five years of age and older.

It’s important to remember that vaccines won’t necessarily stop your child from getting sick (and there’s no vaccine against the common cold). Breakthrough infections are possible, but the resulting illness is usually much less serious.

Clean Everything (Even Favorite Toys)

You may want to stock up on cleaning supplies, because hand sanitizer, Dreft laundry soap, bleach and disinfectant wipes are your friends during cold and flu season. You need to clean everything the kids play with or touch often.

Here’s a general guideline that you can adapt to your family’s rhythms:

  • Wipe down the most commonly touched surfaces in your house every day with antibacterial wipes (Lysol or Clorox, preferably). This includes doorknobs, banisters, bathroom and kitchen counters, and car handles.
  • Wipe down electronics with a sanitizing wipe at least weekly – more often if anybody is showing signs of illness or they’re used often.
  • Make sure that all dishes, sippy cups, straws and similar items are washed immediately after their use, preferably in a dishwasher. (Use hot, soapy water if you have to wash them by hand.)
  • All hard plastic toys should be sanitized weekly with a mild solution of water and bleach. If you have a young child who tends to “mouth” certain toys, wipe those down with sanitizing wipes daily.
  • Stuffed animals and soft comfort items need to be put through the washer and dryer at least weekly. While you don’t need to wash every stuffie your kids own, anything they sleep with should definitely get a weekly cleaning.

Keep in mind that while white vinegar is often touted as a natural alternative to disinfectant wipes and bleach, vinegar doesn’t kill all of the cold and flu germs out there. If you prefer to stay away from bleach, hot, soapy water is quite effective.

Rock Those Face Masks in Public

As a parent, you know that the trick to getting kids to do something is to remind them (endlessly) and to make it as routine as possible. While masking up isn’t exactly fun for anybody, it is an effective way to limit exposure to viruses.

If your kids are small, treat the mask as just another thing that they need to put on before they go outside in the cold, like socks, shoes, a coat and gloves. You can explain to older kids and teenagers the reasons for the masks and try to impress upon them the importance of keeping covered when they’re around people who aren’t in their family unit.

Have an Emergency Plan in Place

If, despite all of your preventative efforts, one of the kids does get sick, it’s almost guaranteed to be in the middle of the school day when you’re at work. Make sure that you have a couple spare people (like aunts, uncles, grandparents or good family friends) on the school’s “pick-up” list for your child so that you don’t have to leave work in a hurry.

Teens can be left at home alone to recuperate, but you still need a plan for what will happen if your younger children fall ill. If you don’t have a grandparent or another relative who can babysit for a few days, now is a good time to discuss working from home with your boss.

Play It Safe When Someone Does Get Sick

The best thing that you can do is to try to isolate anybody who is feeling unwell from everybody else in the household. That’s definitely easier if your kids are older, but even preschoolers can be taught to wash their hands frequently and use hand sanitizer.

It’s also not a bad idea to have the family members who are sick “mask up” when they’re in the common areas of the home. Anybody who is sick should probably also take their meals apart from the rest of the household (if possible), to further reduce the chance of spreading any germs.

Don’t Neglect Your Own Health

Cold and flu season is rough on any parent, and the ongoing problems with COVID aren’t making things any easier. Make sure that you’re doing everything you can to protect your own health during this time.

That means eating right, getting enough sleep, managing your stress levels and occasionally taking a break for “self-care,” whether that means soaking in the tub or just curling up in the quiet with a good book.

As always: Remember that cold and flu season won’t last forever. It’s only a few short months until spring, and you’ll be able to let your guard down a little.

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