Kids are gross. That’s not a judgmental statement; it’s simply a fact of life. As children explore the world, they touch, smell, and/or lick everything around them. As a result, they both collect and distribute any manner of germs and viruses — and are particularly generous when it comes to sharing them with family members, as hygiene and personal space aren’t typically high on their list of priorities.
This confluence of factors makes back-to-school particularly treacherous for parents as they look to fortify their households against the onslaught of illnesses that thrive when kids, who were exposed to different viruses and bacteria at the end of summer vacation, come back together and share their germs with other students — then pass them on to their parents. That reality has parents constantly looking over their shoulders, waiting for the cold or stomach bug that will leave family members feeling crummy, cause childcare chaos, and likely necessitating a day or two off of work.
Although it’s nearly impossible to navigate the back-to-school to flu season time period unscathed — especially with COVID-19 in the air — here are six steps parents can take to mitigate the damage.
1. Wash Your Freaking Hands
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands after, well, just about everything. The full list includes:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before and after eating food
- Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
- 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
Proper technique involves a five-step process that includes wetting your hands, lathering with soap, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds, rinsing well under running water, and finally, making sure your hands are thoroughly dry. The process shouldn’t take forever, but it should last about as long as it takes your kid to sing Happy Birthday or The Alphabet Song.
While you can’t control your kid’s behavior at school, you can set an example at home — lead by example by washing your hands often, be patient with your kid as they get into the habit of hand-washing, and remind them to wash their hands as often as possible at home.
2. Get Vaccinated
One of the most effective ways to help prevent another “tripledemic winter” is to remain up to date on vaccinations. Flu shots, the new COVID-19 booster, and a new RSV vaccine will all be available soon.
Experts expect that we could see a difficult flu season based on cases in Australia over the past few months, during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter season, which helps predict how our own will be. This makes it extremely important to get your flu shot. And unfortunately, unlike with the flu, we don’t have a good sense of when COVID-19 will surge; still, getting boosted as soon as you can is the best thing you can do to protect yourself.
The key is getting vaccinated before an outbreak occurs, making September and October a great time to get flu shots. That timing matches up well with the release of an updated COVID-19 booster that should be available by mid-September and is recommended for everyone aged 6 months and older. Adults age 60 and older are recommended to get the new RSV vaccine, which will be available in the fall as well.
3. Get Enough Vitamin C
Contrary to popular belief, Vitamin C doesn’t prevent illness. However, research indicates that it may shorten symptoms of the common cold and flu. Don’t worry about megadosing, as a healthy and balanced diet will provide the correct amount of vitamin C to improve immunity.
4. Keep Elderberry On Hand In Case of Emergency
We hate to burst the magical elixir bubble again, but much like Vitamin C, elderberry syrup will not prevent illness. However, it can help lessen cold and flu symptoms and may reduce the amount of time you feel crummy. It can also stop pneumonia from turning into bronchitis, making it a potential damage control all-star.
5. Ask Your Doctor About Antivirals The Moment You Start Feeling Sick
Antiviral drugs provide the most significant benefit when started soon after illness onset, with studies indicating that you have about a two-day window after getting sick for flu antiviral drugs to work best. You’ll need a prescription from your doctor to get them, so don’t dilly-dally when you start to experience symptoms.
6. Mask Up
With hospitals in some areas of the country filling up with COVID-19 patients once again, experts suggest you may want to consider wearing an N-95 mask in certain situations. For example, when COVID-19 rates are on the rise in your area, masking on public transportation or crowded indoor spaces would be a wise choice.
CBS News Correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook recently shared a helpful "weather report analogy" for the general public: "What's the weather out today? If it's raining, you will probably want to bring an umbrella. If you are in an area where there is an uptick in airborne respiratory infections like COVID, flu or RSV, you may want to take extra precautions, such as wearing a high-quality mask in indoor public spaces," he said.
You may always choose to mask in indoor spaces if you’re at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19, have regular contact with someone who does, or want to protect high-risk members of your larger community.
The Bottom Line? There are a handful of relatively easy steps everyone can take to fortify their home from illness and help keep it from spreading unabated. Being reasonably careful can lower the chances of a knockout blow, but it’s wise to expect that at some point, influenza, RSV, COVID-19, or even the common cold will make its way into your home.
Although it won’t do much to clear the head and schedule congestion that sickness causes, you can take some solace in knowing that it’s a challenge all families face. Hopefully, when the illness du jour hits your home, it passes quickly. And while the children are down and out, there are plenty of great kids’ TV shows to work through while they rest.