Keeping kids healthier during cold and flu season: tips from a doctor

Dec. 1, 2021
kid on a computer to go with the article about how to keep kids healthier during cold and flu season.
Focusing on what you can do to keep kids healthier during cold and flu season is paramount as it can be frustrating for children and working parents when a child is unable to attend childcare or school because of an illness. Source: Getty Images.

If you have younger children, you may feel like the kids are constantly trading one illness for another this time of year. Now that fall is winding down, we’ve begun to usher in “respiratory season,” with many viruses peaking in activity from December through May.

“We’re definitely beginning to see more illnesses,” says Dr. Chelsea Weiland, a family physician at UCHealth Family Medicine – Greeley. “It can be frustrating and even exhausting for working parents when one or more child is sick at home, unable to attend childcare or school.”

Focusing on what you can do to keep kids healthier during cold and flu season is paramount. The best illness, after all, is the one no one gets. That old adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure still rings true: “Rule number one is prevent, prevent, prevent,” Weiland said.

Stay on top of routine vaccines

“Immunizations protect your child against severe illnesses and reduce the risk of serious outcomes from life-threatening illnesses like influenza. If they do get sick, their symptoms are likely to be less severe and their recovery quicker,” Weiland said.

Influenza is here

  • In November, UCHealth labs found 407 positive tests for influenza.
  • Almost all of the positive flu tests were positive for Flu A.
  • Six people have been hospitalized for flu in UCHealth hospitals.

Anyone 6 months of age and older is eligible for the flu vaccine. It’s recommended to get your annual flu shot in the early fall if possible, but it’s still worth getting if your household hasn’t yet been vaccinated. “Better late than never,” Weiland said.

She continues to urge everyone who can be vaccinated against COVID-19, to do so, especially since infants and children are still getting sick with coronavirus. Now, anyone 5 years of age and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Tips to help make shots easier for children

  • If your little one is still breast or bottle feeding, it can provide the perfect distraction or comfort during the shot.
  • Offer something to look forward to, perhaps a trip to get ice cream or to pick out a small toy after the shot.

Check out more of the CDC’s recommendations for making shots less stressful for your child and our article about how children and adults can overcome a fear of needles.

Keep little hands clean

Regular, thorough handwashing is the easiest and best way for you and your kids to prevent the spread of germs. It’s a habit that can’t start soon enough and should be done multiple times throughout the day – after using the toilet, before eating, after sneezing or coughing, after coming home from outside or a public place, before cooking or eating – you know the drill. Dr. Weiland said hand sanitizer is fine for those times when you can’t use soap and water, but handwashing still reigns supreme.

Tips to encourage good hand hygiene

  • Soap empowerment – “SpongeBob yellow” may not match your décor but allowing kids to choose their hand soap could help keep little hands clean at home. The same goes for hand sanitizer when you’re out and about. Let them pick a fun scent.
  • Sing a tune for at least 20 seconds while you wash. Dr. Weiland suggests “Happy Birthday,” or get silly with this version of “Baby Shark”.

When illness strikes your kids: a survival guide for parents

It’s inevitable for kids to get sick from time to time, despite all your efforts to keep them healthy. Below, Dr. Weiland shares some helpful tips to keep them comfortable and encourage recovery – while maintaining your sanity.

First things first, go easy on yourself. Regular routines and rules may take a temporary backseat while your kids are under the weather. Don’t worry too much about screen time or that your children want to eat cereal for breakfast and lunch for a few days.

“It’s ok to loosen up on some routines to make it easier to get through the days your kids are home,” Weiland said. “As a positive reinforcement, let them watch their favorite movies or allow a special treat if they are well behaved when you need to get things done.”

Get medical advice and care from your couch

Wondering if your child needs to be seen by a doctor? In many cases, your child can be seen and treated by a UCHealth professional – often their own provider — from the comfort of home with Virtual Visits. Existing patients can log on to their My Health Connection account and select Virtual Visits or choose Virtual Urgent Care to schedule an appointment with the first available expert. If you’re new to UCHealth, set up an account here to make an appointment. Of course, if your child seems seriously ill, don’t wait, head to the nearest urgent care or emergency room.

Not sure how to tell if it’s a cold, the flu or COVID-19? Call your family’s pediatric provider with questions and guidance about testing.

It's that time of year when doctors begin to see more illnesses in kids. Focus on what you can do to prevent you kids from getting sick this cold and flu season. Photo: Getty Images.
It’s that time of year when doctors begin to see more illnesses in kids. Focus on what you can do to keep kids healthier this cold and flu season. Photo: Getty Images.

Be prepared with a sick kit

Most mild illnesses can be treated at home. Akin to the “hurricane kits” that Weiland remembers every household having in Florida, where she grew up, she suggests families keep a “sick kit” on hand. If everything stays together in a labeled container, you won’t be fumbling for the necessities.

Here’s what to include:

Thermometer

“Watch for fevers that go above 104 degrees at any age or 100.4 in infants younger than 3 months old,” Weiland said. “These are definitely reasons to contact your doctor as a high fever could be a sign of a more serious infection.”

  • Simple digital thermometer
  • Backup batteries

Over the counter fever reducer/pain relief medicine

Use as needed to keep uncomfortable fevers and aches and pains under control, but first carefully read the labels to ensure the correct dosage and concentration for your child’s age and weight.

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol is a brand name)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin are brand names) – never give to an infant under 6 months old

Note: There aren’t any cough or cold medicines on this list because they are not recommended for children under age 6 due to unproven effectiveness and potential side effects. Weiland offers some other options for helping cough and cold symptoms below.

Stuffy nose relievers

“Nasal saline sprays work wonders to help break up congestion,” Weiland said.

  • Nasal saline spray
  • Suctioning devices (bulb suction or Nose Frieda)
  • Facial tissues with aloe or unscented lotion for irritated noses

Breathing boosters

“Don’t give young children cough syrup. Instead, try warm showers to help relax muscles and open up the little cells in the lungs,” Weiland said. “If your kids have a productive cough, the steam can help loosen the gunk.”

  • Bath crayons to entertain during warm shower sessions
  • Bath toys that suction to the shower wall
  • Humidifiers for your children’s bedrooms
  • Vapor rub to soothe their chests (can also apply to their feet)

 Hydration helpers

 It’s often difficult for parents to make sure their kids are getting enough fluids to stay hydrated while sick, especially if they are experiencing vomiting or diarrhea. “To combat dehydration, pediatric electrolytes can help,” Weiland said.

  • Pediatric electrolytes (available in bottles, powder packets or freezer pops and come in many flavors)
  • Sugar-free flavored powder or drops to add to water
  • Personalized cups with lids and straws to encourage drinking

 Diaper rash remedy

 “Diaper rash occurs more frequently when little ones are sick, especially if they experience diarrhea,” Weiland said. “You can combine two parts protective barrier to one part liquid antacid for a fast-working mixture that can be applied during diaper changes and after bathing.”

  • A&D ointment, Aquaphor or Vaseline
  • Maalox or Mylanta
  • Cotton swabs
  • Small airtight container to keep the mixture in

 Quiet toys to pass the time

 Set aside a few special toys, books, games or quiet activities that are only available to your kids when they’re sick. Since these items aren’t in regular rotation, your children may be able to stay entertained a bit longer.

 Ways to help stop the spread

As tempting as it may be to give your child some Tylenol and hope for the best, keep your kids home from school when they are sick and follow your school’s guidelines for illness.

While recovering at home, Weiland recommends trying to keep the sick members of the household together, separate from those who are well. Ideally, designate a separate sleeping/ living area as well as bathroom for those who are ill. If you can’t keep them separate, wearing a mask will help limit exposure to other members of the household.

Wieland also recommends that parents regularly wipe down common areas or high-touch areas with antibacterial disinfectant. This includes surfaces, door handles and cabinet pulls, the refrigerator and microwave, toilet seats and bathroom faucets.

This too shall pass

While parents of infants should expect their baby to experience anywhere from eight to 12 infections their first year of life, Weiland says it won’t always be that way.

“The good news is, as children grow older, their immune systems become stronger, and in turn, they won’t be sick as often,” she says. “And remember, don’t hesitate to call your provider if you have any questions or concerns about your children. We’re here for you.”

About the author

Jessica Ennis is a freelance writer and editor based in Denver. She loves nothing more than telling the stories of people, organizations and businesses focused on the greater good of their communities and the world around them. She has devoted much of her career to nonprofit health care organizations. Jessica moved to Denver in 2010, after nine years working in the Office of News and Public Affairs for Vanderbilt University and its medical center in Nashville, Tennessee. She then spent five years as the communications manager for Children’s Hospital Colorado before starting her own writing and editing business in 2015. She and her husband, Chris, have two sons, Reed and Dean, as well as a new addition to the family -- a rescue dog named Chewbacca.

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