Washing Hands

Child Health | 7 months ago

How to Strengthen Your Immune System and Prevent Back-to-School Illnesses

Almost every family deals with back-to-school illnesses like the common cold, stomach viruses and strep throat. Here are tips to minimize the spread of illness and keep your family as healthy as possible in the new school year.

There’s a good chance your child will come home from school with an illness soon after summer break ends. If so, you’re not alone: Each back-to-school season, pediatricians see a spike in office visits for illnesses like the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), stomach viruses and strep throat.

So, how can you help your family stay as healthy as possible? Dr. Rita Chen, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children's Shelby Children's Clinic, shares how kids and families can prevent common illnesses and what to do if a family member gets sick.

The most common back-to-school illnesses

“Many viral illnesses, like the common cold, sore throat viruses, stomach viruses, RSV and flu, start soon after school begins and when the weather starts to cool down,” says Chen. “We also see strep throat, which is a bacterial illness, pick up when school starts.” 

Handwashing: A top way to prevent back-to-school illnesses

The first line of defense from illness is clean hands, says Chen. Germs spread when you touch a surface that has germs on it, then touch your mouth, eyes or nose with unwashed hands, such as when eating or touching your face. Germs can also spread when a sick person blows their nose, sneezes or coughs into their hands, then touches other people or shared objects (like toys or a doorknob) with unwashed hands. Some germs also spread through the air, so it can be harder to defend against them.

It's crucial to teach your child to wash their hands before eating, before touching their face, after using the bathroom, and after coughing, sneezing or blowing their nose.

Here’s how kids (and adults!) should properly wash their hands to prevent illness: Wet your hands and add a pump of soap. Rub your hands together to create a lather with the soap. Be sure to spread the lather between your fingers, under your nails and to the backs of your hands. Then, scrub your hands for 20 seconds. A helpful way to count to 20 seconds is to hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Rinse your hands well under running water and then dry them with a clean towel or air dryer.

Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of germs, but alcohol-based hand sanitizer is your next best bet if you don’t have access to soap and water. Hand sanitizers don’t kill all germs, so opt for soap and water when possible. To use hand sanitizer correctly, apply it to your hands, cover all surfaces of your hands with the gel and rub it into your skin until it’s dry. 

Ensure your child’s vaccines are up to date

Vaccines can also help protect your child from illnesses like influenza (the flu), COVID-19, tetanus and whooping cough. Check with your child’s pediatrician to ensure they’re up to date on their vaccines.

How to avoid spreading illness at home

“If you have young children, it’s almost impossible to prevent the spread of illnesses because they cannot care for themselves,” says Chen. “An older child can try to quarantine in their room as much as possible.”

She recommends all family members wash their hands often with soap and water. She also suggests sanitizing high-touch surfaces like TV remotes, light switches, doorknobs, cell phones and tablets.

Supporting a healthy immune system

This time of year is a good reminder to do all you can to keep your immune system as healthy as possible. Chen recommends all family members get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat well-balanced meals.

It can be tempting to turn to vitamins and supplements to prevent illness, but these methods aren’t necessarily effective, she says. While taking supplements is fine if you get the OK from your doctor, your best bet is to focus on hand hygiene and overall wellness, like nutrition, exercise and sleep.

Chen also offers encouragement for parents of young children who are frequently sick with common illnesses.

“Many children entering school or daycare for the first time get sick a lot,” she says. “It can feel like every month for some families. Your child's immune system is seeing viruses that it's never seen before, so it doesn't have any defenses. But it does improve with the second year of school.” 

For more ways to help your child thrive, find an Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician near you.