It’s back-to-school time and, in my pediatrics office, that means it’s back to a daily parade of sick kids with coughs, colds and fevers. Parents ask me all the time how to help their little ones avoid illness once school is back in session. Here’s my best advice for beating back school-borne germs.

Wash those hands!

Parents often spend a ton of money on fancy, cold-busting vitamins and supplements, but the best way to prevent catching most school germs is free: hand washing. Teach your kids to thoroughly scrub with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds each time they wash, and to head to the sink before meals, after using the bathroom, and after they cough or sneeze.

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Keep your febrile child home

There is a (very good) reason most schools have a policy that students should stay home from school if they’ve had a fever within the previous
24 hours: When a virus or bacteria attacks the human body, fever is part of the body’s attempt to fight back. Schools don’t want kids hanging out in classrooms while the illness battle is still raging, as the bacteria or virus may make its way to another student in the process. Instead, use the time at home to help your child focus on fluids and rest, so he can re-enter the school environment ready to learn.

Tell lice to take a hike

Lice are tricky little suckers. They attach easily to the hair shaft and love to hitch a ride on brushes, combs and hats. You can help your child avoid a lice infestation by keeping hair-grooming tools at home and by educating her about not using other kids’ tools (or hats) when she’s at school. Lice symptoms can include an itchy scalp or a rash at the nape of the neck. Wash your child’s hair often and, when you do, look for small nits (eggs) or lice (the actual bugs). If you do see signs of a lice infestation, start treatment right away to prevent spreading it to others in the classroom.

Teach your child about the “cough pocket”

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When you sneeze or cough, little virus or bacteria particles go shooting through the air. They can travel up to 50-200 miles per hour. In an ideal world, kids would catch all those nasties in a piece of tissue, but youngsters often don’t have that much foresight. Instead show your child how to make a cough pocket with his elbow. Don’t be surprised if this takes quite a bit of reinforcing. Good habits take time!

Attend to the basics

Our bodies avoid and fight illnesses best when they’re in prime shape. Eating a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains sets kids up for school and health success. Give your kids plenty of exercise and water, focus on healthy sleep habits, and make sure they’re up to date on all their vaccinations. When it comes to school health, the basics matter!

Accept the reality that even the healthiest kids get sick sometimes

School is a petri dish of (usually low-grade) disease. Even when we do our absolute best to prepare our kids to prevent illnesses, they’re bound to have some germ exposures throughout the year. Plan ahead for school-year sickness by establishing a medical home — a health care provider who provides comprehensive, well and sick care for your child — so that, when she’s ill, you’ll know just who to call for reliable advice and trustworthy reassurance.

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