.Nicole England is the mother of two girls under age 5 and at the time of this writing, both had strep throat. It started with her eldest girl. England says, “After we got her diagnosis I got new toothbrushes, stripped all the beds down and put new sheets on, disinfected the toys, wiped down hand rails, light switches and door knobs.” She was also sure the girls knew they couldn’t kiss or hug and that they had to stick to using their own cups.
Almost a week went by before her youngest started showing symptoms. “I thought we were in the clear,” says England. But when her youngest was diagnosed with strep throat, England had to start all over again with cleaning and disinfecting. “I even got new toothbrushes and pacifiers. Again!”
What can be done to prevent a virus from racing through each and every family member once it strikes? Or is it just a matter of letting it run its course? The answers are that it can get a bit tricky and it depends.
Leah Zemany, A.P.R.N., F.N.P.C., for The Little Clinic reminds us, “You’re most contagious right before symptoms develop and in the first 24 – 48 hours.” Good germ hygiene is important all the time if you’re going to prevent viruses, not just when someone shows symptoms of being sick. She says, “The best way to prevent a virus from spreading is by washing your hands frequently, coughing and sneezing into your sleeve or a tissue. Also, after disposing of tissues in the trash, sanitize your hands.”
Zemany says she understands executing germ hygiene practice with a 2-year-old can be a bit of a challenge. Sometimes the best way to contain a virus is to keep kids separated. Ronna Schneider, M.D., of Suburban Pediatrics says to “set up one room as a sick bay and one room as a healthy room.” There’s a reason you see waiting rooms in doctors’ offices set up this way. It works.
Giannetta Palmer remembers in her house growing up that when the going got tough, the healthy got sent to Grandma’s. But even then she says, “After a few days, I remember everyone at home was feeling better,” but she and Grandma had started to feel bad. “I went home anyway and then I passed a stomach bug to everyone who was recovering in that house.”
This is precisely why Astra Groskaufmanis says, “After a while (OK, after the first kid!) I let the thing run its course.” She had her three children in less than five years. “Sometimes everyone gets sick, sometimes not,” she says, “Germs build immunity, right?” There is some truth to that.
Yes, disinfectant and cleaning toys is a good idea, “especially when you’re dealing with a stomach virus,” says Zemany. However, sometimes it comes down to what you’re exposed to and what you’re able to fight.
Why do Some Parents Not Get Sick?
People regularly ask Zemany how she keeps from getting sick while working in retail health. She says, “I don’t. I don’t do anything special to keep from catching all the bugs I see on a daily basis.” She follows the same germ hygiene recommended above. That helps, but also the frequent exposures at work have built up her immune system. “When I first started working in retail health, I was sick consistently for the first three months,” she says. She had gone from working in a hospital setting to working at The Little Clinic. “I just hadn’t been exposed to the same type of germs, so my immune system had to adjust to my new setting.”
The same is true for children. When kids first start school or daycare they tend to get sick much more frequently. “They’re being exposed to more viruses and bacteria that they’ve not come into contact with before and the body has to learn to fight them off,” says Zemany.
This may seem like an argument for shrugging off illness as one of the pains of childhood. It’s good for their immune systems! However, both Zemany and Schneider stress the importance of keeping children home until they are completely well. If a child has a fever, the rule of thumb is to keep them home until they’re fever free (without the help of fever-reducing medications) for 24 hours. If you send a child to school or daycare too soon, not only will they spread the virus but also their immune system is still compromised from being sick. A child will pick up a whole new illness while their defenses are down and you’ll have to start all over again. Schneider says, “I’m seeing a lot of kids who are getting sick with something new because they were not 100 percent when they went back to school.”
Self-Contain the Sickness
It is also important to remember that many kids who struggle with immune disorders or illnesses rely on their community members to be responsible and do their best to self-contain a virus when they get sick. Zemany also stresses the importance of getting an annual flu vaccine. She says, “The best way to not get the flu, first and foremost is to get vaccinated every year.”
When a kid gets sick, germ hygiene is the most important step for containing that illness to one child. If you can’t contain it to the child then the next best thing you can do is contain it to your home. Keep kids (and parents) home until everyone is healthy.
Keeping Parents Healthy
No matter what happens when the kids are sick, parents are always in the mix. Germ hygiene is key to getting through it all. Schneider says she washes her hands three times per patient, “I wash my hands when I first walk into an exam room, again before I leave the exam room and then again when I walk into another room.” She says, “It is the best line of defense.”
Parents should do the same. Wash your hands before and after coming into contact with your sick child. Kiss his cheeks instead of his lips while he’s sick. England didn’t get sick the last two times a virus ran through her household. She thinks she was spared because “I’m around people all the time at work.” Hence, her immune system is healthy and used to warding off illness. “Plus, I’m the one who cleans the house. I’m always in soap and water or antibacterial wipes. The girls don’t drink from my water bottle either,” she says.
But as Palmer says, “You can beat one bug but you can’t beat them all.” Parents will get sick sometimes and good germ hygiene will keep a virus contained to the sick parent as well.
Schneider stresses the importance of taking care of yourself — “stay hydrated and rest.” Get help from a friend or family member so you can recover without spreading illnesses further.