Your kid goes to school, brings home a cough and before long, the whole family is hacking away. Sound familiar? 

“It’s frustrating when a child is sick—especially when it’s spreading through the household,” says Dr. Jeffrey M. Bienstock, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics NJ Chapter and director of pediatrics at The Valley Hospital in Ringwood with practices in Fair Lawn, Mahwah and Pompton Plains. “And it’s usually because parents are not taking all the proper precautions.” 

The good news? There are easy steps you can take to ensure you’ll stay in tip-top shape while you’re caring for your little sickie. 

1. Get immunized

By far the best way to keep everyone healthy: Make sure your kids get all their vaccines every year, says Bienstock, including the flu shot. “There are many viruses out there, and they’re constantly changing and mutating—that’s what makes prevention so difficult,” he says. And make sure your child’s caregivers and siblings are vaccinated, too. “You may immunize the kid perfectly on time, but if caregivers, grandparents and parents aren’t immunized, then babies and children are getting exposed,” says Dr. Puthenmadam Radhakrishnan, a member of the AAP NJ’s executive committee with a pediatric practice in Trenton. No vaccine is 100 percent, but by safeguarding everyone, you’re at least minimizing the chances of the virus spreading.

2. Teach kids how to wash hands, cough and sneeze

Proper hygiene is key to stopping sickness in its tracks. Your kid should wash his hands often (using either warm, soapy water or an alcohol-based antiseptic) and cough and sneeze either into the fold of his elbow or a tissue. If it’s a box of Kleenex he’s opting for, keep a trash bin close by. “There’s a contagious period for certain viruses when they’re exposed to surfaces, like when you leave a used tissue on a table,” says Bienstock. “Throw it in the garbage immediately.”

3. Wash up yourself—often

Perhaps even more important than making sure your child cleans up is making sure you do­—since you’re the one taking care of everyone in the house. “You may do everything else [right], but if you have other kids in the house and you don’t wash up really well, you can bring germs from the kid who’s sick to the others,” says Radhakrishnan. So whenever you can sneak in a few minutes, hit the sink. “When there’s a moment you can break away—maybe he’s napping or coloring—change your clothing and wash your face and hands,” Bienstock suggests. “When you have the opportunity to clean yourself, do it.” Use the good, old-fashioned, germ-killing remedy: soap and warm water. Wash for a full 20 seconds.

4. Don’t share

Don’t share the same toothbrush, cup, food or towel, or let her sleep in your bed all night long (if you can help it with an under-the-weather child who just wants lots of cuddles and love). You can still stay close to your little sickie, though, and give her what she needs. “I think it’s impossible to provide comfort without being side-by-side,” says Bienstock. So if she’s crying for you to pick her up, pick her up. If she wants you to tell her a story, sit down and tell her a story. Just make sure you wash up afterwards (see #3!).

5. Split caretaking duties

When it comes to caring for a sick kid, sometimes, even superhero parents need to ask for help. Taking care of a sick child is a full-time job, and splitting the chores is very important. “Even perfectly healthy caregivers who are eating well, getting enough rest and exercising can burn out,” says Bienstock. And when you burn out, your immune system drains and you get sick, says Radhakrishnan. So make sure both parents are involved in care, and call up a friend, cousin or  grandparent so you can take an hour or two off and recharge.

6. Make areas of the house off-limits 

Quarantining your sick kid may seem unfair (especially during those moments when he swears he feels “perfectly fine”), but it works. “You can’t do this with every runny nose and cough,” says Bienstock, “but when the child is experiencing a flu-like illness, fever, sore throat, body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea, you really want to keep him in one spot.” Set him up in his bedroom (if he shares a room, have the sibling bunk with you for a few nights), if you have more than one bathroom, designate one as “the sick bathroom” (for his use only) and make all other areas of the house off-limits, especially siblings’ bedrooms. Keep these boundaries for the entire time he’s sick and then at least 24 hours after all the symptoms have cleared, and make sure everyone in the family knows the rules. “It always seems like children are not playing with each other until one gets sick, and all of a sudden they’re best friends,” says Bienstock. 

7. Disinfect ‘hotspots’

Once your kid’s symptoms subside and you lift the quarantine, grab a store-bought disinfectant or a mild solution of bleach and water and clean everything within six feet (that’s a safe coughing or sneezing distance) of your formerly under-the-weather child. Clean the bathroom he’s been using, and his bedroom, change the sheets and pillowcases on his bed and scrub down any countertops he (or his dirty tissues) may have touched. Pay special attention to germ “hotspots,” like the spoon he used to eat soup, the thermometer you used to take his temperature and, most importantly, his stuffed animals and toys. “One of the biggest things people forget about are the toys they play with. We wipe down the toys in our office twice a day,” says Bienstock.

8. Take care of yourself 

When you fly, you know that in case of emergency, parents are supposed to put their oxygen masks on before they reach over to help their children. The same rules apply when taking care of a sick child. Try as best you can to get a decent night’s sleep, drink lots of fluids yourself, eat well, even exercise if you can carve out a little time. Another tip? Avoid second-hand smoke whenever possible. “If you’re exposed to second-hand smoke, you’re going to get sicker sooner,” says AAP NJ President Dr. Elliot Rubin, whose practice University Pediatric Associates has locations in East Brunswick and Highland Park. The more you’re able to look after yourself, the better you’ll be able to care for your child when she’s not feeling well—and the less likely you’ll catch whatever she has. “If we’re feeling good, if we’re healthy, we can more effectively take care of our children,” says Bienstock. If not—we’ll be next with the thermometer and the tissue box.

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