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Dodging cold season

Follow tips for kids (and adults) to stay healthy through winter

Follow tips for kids (and adults) to stay healthy through winter

February 17, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

kristinw@herald-mail.com

Before Karen Ingram's fourth-grade Clear Spring Elementary School students head for the lunchroom, she makes sure each child has lathered up with antibacterial hand sanitizer to kill any cooties lingering on the 9-year-olds hands.

Making sure hands are squeaky clean before eating is crucial to help fight off winter colds. And, as it turns out, mom was right: Covering your mouth when you cough and getting a good night's sleep also are prime disease stoppers.

February marks the height of the winter cold and flu season.

"You have so many viruses that grow better in cold weather," explains Dr. Stephanie Brown, a family physician with Robinwood Family Practice in Hagerstown. Plus, more people are cooped up inside sharing the same air - and the same germs.

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That's especially true in school environments. Teachers and school nurses do their due diligence by practicing good hygiene and good hand-washing techniques with children. Parents too should drill good hygiene lessons at home to help keep colds at bay, school nurses say.

Here are tips to help kids stay away from colds:

Wash before, wash after, wash often

It doesn't take long for little hands to get big-time dirty. Children - and adults- need to scrub their hands with antibacterial soap for at least 15 seconds or more when washing visibly dirty hands. Teach children to sing "Happy Birthday to You" or the alphabet song while washing hands, suggests Joyce Foltz, a registered nurse with Washington County Health Department. The time it takes to sing the song is about how long they should be scrubbing with soap.

Keep your germs to yourself

Remind children to cover their mouths when coughing and to use a tissue for runny noses and sneezes. If kids can't cover their mouths with hands or tissues, "we encourage them to cough into their sleeve," Foltz says. "We do a lot of teaching with that, and parents can do that as well."

Runny, drippy noses can contribute to the spreading of germs, Brown says. "I see some kids who come in (to the doctor's office) with their nose dripping, and then they inadvertently touch their nose and then touch a toy that another child then touches," she says. For a young child especially, it doesn't occur to him to blow his nose, Brown says. Parents should drill nose-blowing with kids who are suffering from a leaky sniffer.

Children also should be taught not to share things they or other children put in their mouths. For example, children often nibble on pencils or pens, which should not be shared with other kids. Drinks should not be shared, and lip balm or lipstick should be kept to one set of lips only, Foltz says.

Keeping hands away from the mouth also is important, Brown says.

"That's a direct route for spreading infection," she says.

Plenty of sleep and a healthful diet

Warding off infections "starts with good sleeping habits and healthy eating," says Sissy Slick, a registered nurse with the Washington County Health Department. "Parents need to make sure their children get plenty of rest. Little children need at least eight hours of sleep if not more," she says. A well-balanced, healthful diet is also important. Doctors can recommend whether a child should take vitamins, she adds.

Stress also can play a factor in wearing down kids' immune systems, Brown says. Minimizing stress and keeping kids well-rested "plays a pretty big role" in a child's overall health. "You are much more susceptible to infection if you are not eating right, if you're stressed," she says.

Home prevention

If children are exposed to germs at school, they most likely will tote them home via book bags, school supplies and lunch pails, Slick says. It's important to keep home surfaces which come into contact with book bags, wiped clean with antibacterial cleaners, she says. Parents also can teach children how to avoid contact with public germ-laden surfaces by showing them how to use paper towels in the bathroom.

"Here at school, we show (students) that, when you turn the faucet off, you grab a paper towel. Any little thing like that helps," Slick says.

Ask the doctor

If a child does come down with a cold or exhibits symptoms of a more serious virus, it's best to discuss with the family doctor whether the child should go to school, school nurses say.

Symptoms such as high fever, diarrhea and vomiting are usually indicators that a child is too sick for school, Brown says.

If a child's temperature measures more than 100.4 degrees "that means that the body is probably putting most of its energy into fighting infection," Brown says. And that means the child probably will not perform well at school.

Besides, when kids are really sick and contagious, keeping germs away from the school is appreciated, nurses say.

Keeping sick kids home "makes more sense than for a sick child to come into school, spread the germs and then go home later," Slick says.

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