11 Cheap Ways to Keep Back-to-School Germs at Bay

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When kids start a new school year, they tend to start sharing bacteria and viruses. But there are ways to stop at least some germs from making your family miserable and complicating its schedule with sick days and doctor visits. With some planning, encouragement, and effort to gently remind children of the best practices for staying healthy, it's possible to avoid some common, school-sourced illnesses.

Related: 10 Ways to Save on School Supplies
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Washing hands is one of the best ways to keep germs where they belong: down the drain with soap and hot water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teaching people to wash their hands can drastically reduce the spread of illness. Even if a child has a good hand-washing routine at home, it's smart to check with the school to see what the procedure is there. Teachers usually recommend washing after using the restroom, but it's just as important to wash up before eating snacks or lunch.
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If washing hands before meals isn't part of a class routine, a small, clip-on bottle of hand sanitizer (less than $1.50 at Target) will do in a pinch if the child is old enough to understand how to use it properly. Although it doesn't work as well as soap and water, sanitizer can reduce the number of germs on a child's hands. Be sure to practice before the school year starts to make sure children know that hand sanitizer should be allowed to dry and never be licked or ingested.
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Make sure children get fruits and vegetables in their packed lunches, concentrating on whole foods that give the immune system its nutritional backbone. The Cleveland Clinic advises eating produce that's full of vitamin C, such as strawberries, bell peppers, and oranges; and foods full of vitamin B6, such as bananas.
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Many schools have policies on what parents should do in case of illness, particularly when it comes to keeping students home. Always follow these rules. They won't prevent an already sick child from getting ill, of course, but they will help halt the spread of germs. Minor illnesses don't always prevent a kid from going to school, but students with fevers, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea should stay home.
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The CDC says a child home with a fever should stay put until the fever has been gone for at least 24 hours. This is especially important if the child has the flu, which can spread even after a fever subsides. (Of course, this means the temperature should go down on its own; using a fever-reducing medication doesn't count.)
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Coughing and sneezing without covering the nose and mouth is an excellent way to shoot germs around a classroom. But using a hand to stop the respiratory onslaught isn't much better -- hands become vehicles for spreading germs to the next person. Instead, teach children to cover up a sneeze or cough with a tissue (which gets tossed in the trash immediately) or the crook of an elbow.
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The mouth, nose, and eyes give germs direct access to invade the body, so teaching a child to avoid touching these parts with potentially germ-ridden hands can help prevent illness. It may take some time, but gentle reminders can help the habit stick and lower the risk of infection.
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Instead of letting children fling their backpacks on their beds when they get home, designate a space where they can be stashed after emptying. This can be in a hall closet or a kid's own closet, but keeping backpacks away from sleep spaces can help prevent the spread of whatever germs have stowed away and sneaked into the home.
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Let's face it -- a lunchbox can get pretty gross. Whether it's a soft-sided container or stainless steel, it should get wiped out thoroughly and air-dried every day. Not only can lunchboxes harbor germs, but lurking food pieces can get gross in a hurry.
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The phrase "sharing is caring" does not apply to germs -- in preventing illness, the opposite is true. That's one reason many teachers prefer that students have their own supplies and keep them separate. (It reduces classroom stress as well as the spread of germs.) At home, remind children that they should keep their hands to themselves and use only their own supplies when at school.
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Flu season can start as early as October, according to the CDC, and run well into spring. The agency recommends that most healthy children and adults get an influenza vaccine whenever they become available. The vaccine is usually inexpensive, especially with medical insurance, and many public health offices offer it for free. Although the vaccine doesn't prevent all cases of the flu, it's estimated to reduce the risk by 50 percent to 60 percent.