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How to stop everyone in your family from getting sick at the same time

Dr Preeya Alexander

With families in close contact, germs can spread rapidly

A father helping his young son blow his nose
A father helping his young son blow his nose

Ask any parent of a pre-schooler about illness and you’re likely to get a weary look, glazed eyes and a slight facial twitch in return. When you’ve got young kids, it can feel like colds and stomach bugs sweep through the household on a regular basis – especially when children are at childcare (and, to a lesser extent, school) where they’re more likely to be exposed to viruses.

According to Dr Preeya Alexander, a GP and family health expert known as The Wholesome Doctor, regular bouts of illness are part and parcel of parenting.

“Pre-schoolers tend to get six to 12 viral infections a year – yes, it’s a lot! And that is considered normal,” she says. “Children are slowly building up their immunity to illnesses in the community, so tend to get unwell more often.”

But, just because adults have developed more robust immune systems doesn’t mean they are protected from the bugs their kids are so innocently bringing home. Because families are in such close contact, germs can spread rapidly from children to their parents, Preeya says. In winter, the likelihood for colds increases as people spend more time together indoors. Plus, cold viruses survive longer in the air and on surfaces in cooler environments and it’s harder for you to fight cold viruses in colder temperatures.

“Children are slowly building up their immunity to illnesses in the community, so tend to get unwell more often.”

“Inside the home, everyone tends to touch similar surfaces, such as taps and door handles, and close contact is inevitable – particularly with small children who love kisses and cuddles,” says Preeya. “If one person gets sick, it can easily spread from person to person within the home.”

Ways to stop the spread around the home

When it comes to preventing the spread of illness throughout the household, the most important practice is something we’ve heard over and over – hand hygiene. Everyone in the family should wash their hands with warm soapy water, especially after sneezing, coughing and blowing noses, and before eating. This helps reduce the spread of common childhood infectious illness such as colds and gastroenteritis (infection of the gut, which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea).

“While we can be very vigilant outside the home with hand hygiene, we tend to relax at home – but if someone is sick, then bugs can spread rapidly. Promote regular handwashing before eating or touching the face,” Preeya says.

“If someone is sick then trying to limit close contact with that person is a great way of preventing the spread of illness – but as a mother of two, I know how hard this can actually be!”

If someone in the family gets sick, make sure their drink bottles, cups and utensils aren’t used by anyone else. If they are old enough, teach them to cough into their elbow to avoid germs on their hands.

A family relaxes in the lounge room while playing on devices

Cleaning surfaces that are constantly touched, such as benches, light switches, bannisters and door knobs, is crucial when illness strikes.

“A detergent solution, prepared as recommended by the brand you use, is often all you need,” says Preeya. “Household bleach solutions – be careful to prepare these as recommended – are also a great way to clean and disinfect surfaces. The key is doing it regularly.”

And as far as laundry goes: “Most germs will be eradicated in a normal clothes wash using cool temperature water with a detergent product.”

Things you can do to build immunity

Even very young children can benefit from having their immunity supported, and there are straightforward ways to do that.

“A good, varied diet high in fruit and vegetables supports immune health, as does getting enough sleep and physical activity,” Preeya says.

“While it’s inevitable that young kids will pick up bugs – and more easily because young kids tend to share everything, including germs – you can definitely support the immune system with these simple lifestyle measures.”

Related: How to increase immunity and avoid the flu this year

Colds and stomach bugs can be nasty, but at child care centres and schools, kids can also spread more serious illnesses such as whooping cough, measles and mumps. To give your child the best chance of defending themselves against serious illnesses, Preeya explains that it’s important to keep up to date with their vaccinations.

For more information on when it’s time for your child’s immunisations, check out the Australian Government’s dedicated page.

Dr Preya Alexander

Dr Preeya Alexander

Dr Preeya Alexander is a Melbourne-based GP. Between running a busy clinic load and family life, she is passionate about educating Australians with evidence-based health information across a range of channels and loves nothing more than bringing out her 'inner Beyonce'.