Everyone agrees kids need to be in school so they can learn. But illnesses such as cold and flu can derail good intentions. Although there is no way to completely avoid catching a cold, there are steps parents can take to minimize the chances of contracting an illness.

Laura Burnworth, a certified health education specialist, and Kimberly Parker, a certified clinical nurse leader, work in the Child Health Promotion department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. They educate families on how to keep kids healthy and safe as possible in their homes and schools.

Almost 22 million school days are lost each year because of the common cold, Burnworth says. That doesn’t take into account the flu or other illnesses. Adds Parker, “There are numerous viruses and germs floating around. We’re going to be exposed. Chances are all of us are going to get sick. We want to prevent and lessen the impact as much as possible.”

Here are some of the pair’s tips for keeping kids healthy year-round.

Teach your child to follow these 6 tips:


Wash hands with soap and water.
Warm water is best, but cold water is fine. In most places, liquid soap or foam soap is best. Bar soap is OK for the bath and shower. Antibacterial soap isn’t necessary. Unless your child has sensitive skin, you can let her select a fun, scented soap. If your child does have sensitive skin, find a cheerful soap dispenser to make hand-washing more fun.

Use proper hand-washing technique. Your child should wash his hands often: before eating, after using the restroom, after sneezing, and after playing outside. Teach your child to scrub well between his fingers and wash for at least 20 seconds, which is enough time to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.

Use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available. Read labels to find hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol. It’s the alcohol that kills germs. Products labeled “antimicrobial” or “antibacterial” are not recommended because of concerns about germs becoming resistant.

Cough and sneeze into a sleeve. It’s tempting to cover your mouth with your hands, but an elbow or upper arm is a much better way to prevent the spreading of germs. If you teach your kids this habit at a young age, it will become second nature.

Use tissues only once before tossing. Carrying around the same wadded-up tissue all day is not the way to keep germs from spreading. Use a tissue once, throw it away, then wash your hands.

Resist the temptation to share a water bottle with a friend. Kids think nothing of drinking out of the same water bottle or cup or eating with the same fork. Explain to your children why it’s important not to do so.

In addition to modeling healthy habits, parents should follow these 6 tips:


Get everyone in the family vaccinated.
The flu vaccine is developed each year in anticipation of the viruses that will be prevalent that season. “There is no one cold or flu virus,” Burnworth says. “There are a lot of different types with similar symptoms.” Even if you build up an immunity to one virus because your whole family gets sick, you are not immune to other viruses or strains. Therefore, it’s important to get everyone in your family who is older than 6 months of age vaccinated every year. Make it a family outing and go out for a treat afterward.

Make sure everyone eats a healthy diet. A healthy, well-balanced diet builds a healthy immune system. No matter how busy your family is, make time to eat a varied diet that includes foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and iron. Keep everyone hydrated by making sure water is always accessible.

Make sure everyone gets a good night’s sleep. A good night’s rest gives your body and immune system a chance to recuperate after a long day. This can be an especially challenging task with middle and high schoolers. Despite their insistence otherwise, everyone needs sleep.

Disinfect high-traffic areas. Use a diluted bleach solution or products with antiviral agents to kill germs on tables, toys, handrails, and other frequently touched surfaces.

Discuss supplements, vitamins, and herbal remedies with the pediatrician. A lot of products promise to help prevent colds and make the colds you get less severe. Check with your pediatrician for advice on any product, especially those not regulated or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Help your child’s teacher keep the classroom healthy. Teachers appreciate tissues, hand sanitizer, wipes, and other tools to keep the classroom environment as healthy as possible. Parents can also volunteer in the classroom, wiping down surfaces while students are at lunch or on the playground and supervising kids in the restroom to make sure they wash their hands properly.

It can be frustrating when you take steps to minimize the spread of germs, and still your child gets sick. And soon the whole family is, too. But don’t think the prevention techniques don’t work—they do. Although there’s no way to keep 100 percent of germs from infecting your child, healthy habits give students the best chance to stay well and in school.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.