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How can my child avoid colds when playing with others?
Q: What is the best way to prevent my 21-month-old from picking up a cold while playing with his cousins? They are about his age and always seem to be sick.
A: Heather, colds are an inevitable part of early childhood, especially in the fall and winter. Infants and toddlers average 10-12 colds per year, preschoolers average 5-6 per year, and older children and adults typically get fewer. Over time, the body develops immunity to protect against the illnesses.

Colds are caused by viruses that spread from one person to another. It’s very easy for children to spread germs to each other. When your son’s cousins are sick with a cold, their mucus and saliva are loaded with the viruses. Here are some ways that the viruses spread:
  • When a sick child coughs, the virus in his saliva is sprayed into the air—then another child breathes it in.
  • When a sick child puts a toy in his mouth, the virus in her saliva gets on the toy—then she puts the toy down and another child picks it up and puts it in his mouth.
  • When a child wipes his runny nose with his hand, the virus in his mucus gets on his hands—then he holds hands with another child and the other child touches his own eyes, nose and mouth.

Here are some good tips to help reduce the spread of colds:
  • Wash hands frequently:
    Hand-washing is probably the most important way to reduce the spread of colds and many other illnesses. Be sure to wash your own and your son’s hands after wiping noses, diapering or going to the bathroom; and before preparing meals and eating.
  • Don’t share food or drinks:
    Although we encourage our children to share, we don’t want them to share germs. Make sure each child has his own food and drink.
  • Don’t let the children kiss each other on the mouth:
    Most common illnesses such as colds, flu, and herpes cold sores can spread through germs in the mouth. It’s safest to kiss on the forehead or cheek.
  • Teach the children to cough or sneeze into their elbow:
    Although you probably learned to “cover your mouth when you cough,” this sprays saliva and germs onto your hands. If you don’t wash your hands right away, you spread the germs when you touch people and objects afterwards. It’s better to keep your hands clean by coughing and sneezing into your elbow. Children as young as 2 or 3 years old can learn to do this, too.
  • Clean toys regularly:
    Infants and toddlers tend to put toys in their mouths. The easiest way to clean plastic toys that don’t have batteries is to run them through the dishwasher. If you don’t have a dishwasher, wash the toys with soap and water, then dip them in a bleach solution (1 tablespoon bleach to 1 quart of water) and let them air dry in a rack. For toys with batteries, just clean the outside with soap and water, then wipe with the bleach solution. You can clean fabric toys in the laundry.
  • Make sure your child gets fresh air:
    Fresh air is healthy for children and adults, even in cold weather. It’s healthiest to open windows for a short time every day, and take your child outdoors at least once a day.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician