Ask the Expert: How do I Keep the Rest of the Family from Contracting my Kid’s Cold and Cough?

There is a certain dread that hits me when one of my kids gets sick. Will it go through the house like wildfire? Will we all fall like dominoes? Am I next? Yes, it is a bit selfish and a bit of germ paranoia, but even a doctor is not above such things.

We all know that cold symptoms and cough are caused by viruses, for the most part. And viral symptoms, especially in children, are inevitable. But is there any way to reduce the chance of having our child’s symptoms spread throughout the house? The short answer is “yes.”


One of the most important things we can all do to reduce risk is simple. Handwashing. Let’s face it, none of us is good at it. Nor do we do it enough. Even at the best of hospitals around the country, handwashing rates are alarmingly low. But whether at your home or at your local hospital, it works.

Just like tooth brushing, hand washing takes instruction and practice. Many preschools are teaching children how to effectively wash their own hands. Access to a sink (that kids can reach easily), soap, and disposable toweling are a must. Intermittent supervision (at least) of handwashing technique and effectiveness are the the other ingredients to reduced infection. Most experts recommend soaping and rinsing at least as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” or the “ABC song.” Purell is another option, especially when water is not readily available. Supervision in young children with hand sanitizer is important since ingesting Purell is a potential hazard.

As a parent, hand hygiene is just as important. Washing hands after handling tissues, soiled diapers and soiled surfaces is an important habit. Be sure to wash hands and counters, especially when they are exposed to raw foods. And no sick kids making food. “Jennifer and I were home sick today, so we had time to make you these cookies, here you go.” And there they go, right into the trash! Yuck! And as a parent, you have an obligation to keep your pets healthy as they can transmit illness to your child. And don’t forget to wash after handling pet waste.

As a general pediatrician, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a word in for another critical responsibility of parents in reducing infection in the household. And that is immunizing your child. Consenting to all immunizations and immunizing on schedule are so important. There is a variable trend of refusing all/some immunizations. And some well meaning parents will also split or delay vaccines. Most experts feel this is a critical error. Talk to your pediatrician if you are tempted to alter the proven vaccine schedule or are worried about vaccine effectiveness or side effects.