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Pediatrician-approved tips for keeping germs at bay this winter

Washing your hands well requires wetting them with warm, running water, applying liquid soap or clean bar soap and rubbing them vigorously together for at least 15 to 20 seconds. Forum News Service File photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Colder weather is upon us, which means the flu and other winter illnesses will soon follow. Contrary to popular belief, the cold weather itself, or getting caught outside on a cold, rainy day, doesn't make us sick.

But certain viruses, including the flu and the virus that causes the common cold, seem to thrive in cool, dry winter air. People are also more likely to stay indoors in cooler weather, putting them in more frequent close contact with household objects and other people, both of which may harbor germs. And it's a time when our bodies tend to get run down, because of darker days and longer nights, less vitamin D from sunshine, less activity and holiday exhaustion.

Children seem to bear the brunt of winter illnesses and get sick frequently, mainly because their immune systems are less developed and they are always in close contact with other children, making it easier to share germs. But just because they're more susceptible doesn't mean you can't try to minimize the effects of cold, flu and other infections on your family. As pediatricians, we're exposed to all kinds of germs year-round, and we are old pros at preventing and battling sickness. Here are some measures that, in our experience, can help make those nasty illnesses less frequent, or at least less severe.

Hand washing.

It seems like ridiculously basic advice, but when germs are everywhere it really is your best defense against spreading them. Encourage your kids to wash properly, with soap, rather than just quickly rinsing their hands in the sink. This requires kids to rinse, lather and scrub for at least 20 seconds before doing a final rinse and then drying with a clean towel, or letting their hands air dry. Try to make it fun by having them sing the ABCs or another favorite tune while washing. Observe and help them until your kids are reliably doing this on their own and have made good hand hygiene a habit throughout the day. Washing with soap and water is generally better than using a hand sanitizer, but sanitizer is certainly better than nothing at all, so keep it handy when you are out and about.

Vaccinations.

Make sure your child's vaccines are up to date and get your annual flu shot. Vaccine-preventable illnesses are fortunately no longer very common, but that is because we have prevented many of them with these vaccines. So do your part and make sure your kids are up to date. It will keep your children healthy and also protect those who may not be able to receive vaccines because of chronic illness, disease or medications.

Keep those little hands away from their faces.

Kids' hands get into everything and come into contact with a variety of fomites (household objects such as clothes, towels and furniture that are likely to carry germs). Teach them to keep their hands away from their mouths and noses as much as possible. When they put their fingers in their mouths and noses, it gives germs direct entry to the mucous membrane linings, and that makes getting into the body and the bloodstream an easy next step.

Sleep and nutrition.

A good night's sleep and healthy diet will always go a long way in preventing illnesses. Aim for kids to get 10 hours of sleep each night, even for teens. We know it can be challenging, but try to keep your routines streamlined to maximize sleep and minimize wasted time that could be spent sleeping. A diet rich in whole foods, colorful fruits and veggies and free of processed junk food is another great way to keep your body healthy and strong enough to combat any germs it encounters. It's also important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Vitamins, minerals and supplements.

While this topic is frequently debated, certain vitamins, including D and C, as well as zinc and probiotics, have been shown to help boost immunity and make for quicker recoveries when you do get sick. Check for the appropriate dosage and always let your pediatrician know what vitamins and supplements you are giving your child.

Even with the most careful prevention, kids will still get sick. In most cases, it isn't serious. Kids commonly experience some sort of upper respiratory tract infection, with or without fever, several times per year.

Call your doctor if your child is less than 3 months old and has a fever (temperature of 100.4 or higher) or if your older infant or child has a fever lasting more than three to four days, has difficulty breathing, isn't able to keep down liquids, is extremely fatigued (beyond what you normally see with a cold or brief illness), looks really sick, or if you have any concerns. If your child is requiring antibiotics multiple times per year, or needs to be hospitalized often, this also needs to be further discussed and investigated with your pediatrician.

 This article was written by Tanya Altmann and Tiffany Fischman, reporters for The Washington Post.

- Fischman is a pediatrician at Calabasas Pediatrics Wellness Center and a mom of two. Altmann is a pediatrician who founded Calabasas Pediatrics and a mom of three. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the author of several books, including "Baby and Toddler Basics: Expert Answers to Parents' Top 150 Questions."

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