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Some things spread like wildfire in a school – the latest lingo, the latest trends and, unfortunately, the latest germs. Schools keep kids – and their germs – in close proximity, making students particularly vulnerable to infecting one another. Nearly 22 million school days are missed each year due to colds alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You may not be able to protect your kids from fashion choices they’ll regret in a decade, but you can do your best to protect them from illness. Share these tips with your kids to keep them as healthy as possible:

  1. Wash your hands
    “The best way to prevent infections is good hand washing,” notes pediatrician Frank Esper, MD. Warm, soapy water is best. Teach younger kids to scrub until they finish singing the entire alphabet song, and teach older kids to count to 20 before rinsing.
  2. Don’t share
    This may seem antithetical to one of life’s golden rules, but it’s important to teach kids not to share personal items, such as water bottles, earbuds, hats, brushes and lip balms.
  3. Cover sneezes and coughs
    Sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow or a tissue – not your hands, says. Dr. Esper. And be sure to wash your hands afterward.
  4. Keep your hands off your face
    Younger kids especially display some questionable habits when it comes to touching their faces. Teach them to keep their fingers out of their mouths, noses and ears.
  5. Skip the water fountain
    Pack water bottles for your kids if their schools allow it. If not, teach them to use the water fountain without putting their mouths on the spigot.
  6. Eat your veggies…
    …and your fruit, too. A nutritious diet can give young immune systems a healthy boost.
  7. Get a good night’s sleep
    Sleep keeps kids’ immune systems healthy and strong. According to the CDC, children age 10 to 17 need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep; children age 5 to 10 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep; and children age 3 to 5 need 11 to 13 hours of sleep.
  8. Get the flu shot
    The single best way to protect your kids from influenza is vaccination. Be sure your children get their annual flu shot.
  9. Stay home
    Sick kids should not go to school. Their weakened immune systems may make them vulnerable to even more germs – and they need to avoid infecting their classmates. Dr. Esper points out that it is especially important to keep kids home when they have a fever: “When you have a fever, you have the highest number of germs in the body and thus are more likely to infect others.”

Frank Esper, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

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