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Where there are kids, there are germs -- and lots of them.

Those germs lead to millions of cases of cold and flu. Children under age 6 get up to eight colds a year, on average. That’s a lot of sad faces and sick days.

It may take some patience -- and a lot of reminders -- but you can teach your kids habits that will help them avoid germs and stay healthy. And believe it or not, you can even make it fun.

1. Be a germ-ologist.

Whether you call them bugs or cooties, kids can understand germs on their own level. Explain that germs are tiny things you can’t see, even though they’re everywhere. Some are good; some are bad. Germs that cause the cold and flu can hang out on your hands and get into your body when you touch your nose or mouth.

2. Wash your hands.

Hand-washing is the best way to stop germs from spreading. And it’s easy -- just rub your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. Doesn’t have to be antibacterial soap. Doesn’t have to be warm water.

“Use a fun colored or shaped soap,” says Emily Hsu, MD, a pediatrician in Long Beach, CA. “You can also find soap finger paints that make lots of bubbles.”

Coach your kids on the right way to do it:

  • Wet your hands with warm or cold water.
  • Turn off the water.
  • Get some soap.
  • Rub your hands together, creating lather. Spread it between your fingers and on the backs of your hands, too.
  • Do this for at least 20 seconds, then rinse off the soap.
  • Use a clean towel to dry your hands.

Twenty seconds may feel like a long time to a kid. Make the time fly by singing “Happy Birthday” twice, singing the ABC song, or counting down with a timer.

Also, teach them when they should do it:

  • When their hands are dirty
  • Before they eat or touch food
  • After they use the bathroom
  • After they cough into their hands or blow their nose
  • After they leave the playground
  • Before and after they spend time with someone who’s sick

“Get into the habit of washing hands as a family before every meal,” Hsu says.

3. Use hand sanitizer.

Sometimes you have dirty hands, but you can’t get to a sink with soap. Train kids to reach for hand sanitizer. It’s available in most classrooms, and travel-size tubes can easily be clipped to a diaper bag or backpack.

Some brands use kid-friendly scents to make it more interesting. Buy the kind that’s at least 60% alcohol to kill as many germs as possible.

One reminder: It’s important that kids understand that hand sanitizer is for hands only. The more fun it looks, the more they might be tempted to taste it. More than a few mouthfuls can cause alcohol poisoning.

4. Cough into your elbow.

“I call it the vampire cough method,” says Tempe Chen, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Long Beach. “Basically you cough into the curve of your elbow instead of your hands. This keeps the germs off your hands and stops respiratory droplets from spreading into the air.”

5. Use a tissue.

To kids, everything is a tissue -- their sleeves, a favorite stuffed animal, the couch cushions. To keep all the germs in one place, a tissue is the best place to put them.

“Germs can fly 60 to 100 mph,” Hsu says. “If you did a real-time video of the mist from a cough or sneeze, you’d see it goes everywhere.”

Keep tissues in visible places around your home and in the car. Hand them to your child so they get into the habit of sneezing and coughing into them.

6. Sharing is not always caring.

Toys should be shared, but germs shouldn’t. Explain to your kids that sharing straws, cups, food, forks, and spoons means spreading germs. This means they can get sick and so can their friends.

7. Take care of yourself.

Help your kids understand that sleep matters. While you’re sleeping, your body gets to be still and focus on keeping you well. The same goes for eating healthy foods. Every apple, banana, and piece of broccoli is a win in the war on germs.   

Chen also strongly recommends making the flu shot an annual habit for the whole family.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing a child who’s sick with a condition that could’ve been prevented,” she says.

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