Over one billion colds pass around the U.S. each year. Many of those colds are in the bodies of our favorite little people, our children. And unfortunately, we may end up catching them. Children over the age of six can get as many as eight colds per year. Parenting is hard enough when well and healthy, and caring for children places parents almost constantly in the path of damaging colds. Keeping kids healthy and germ-conscious helps, as does keeping your home clean and sanitary. But not all households are the same, and those colds can come traveling home from school or other activities no matter how hard you work at prevention. And since colds can develop anywhere from one to three days after you come into contact with the virus, it’s important to be proactive. Make sure that you are taking all the necessary steps to yourself well during cold and flu season so you can remain in top form for your kids. Read on for some tips on protecting yourself from your kids’ colds this winter.

Family Flu Shots

Flu symptoms and cold symptoms are very similar, and both can have a huge impact on your ability to function. The most important thing you can do to keep yourself free of those symptoms during cold and flu season is to make sure that everyone in your household gets the influenza vaccine. An ill child or spouse bringing the flu into your household has the potential to infect everyone around them, no matter how well-prepared your home is. And the flu can be a great deal worse than most colds: in addition to symptoms similar to those of a common cold, flu sufferers can struggle with body and muscle aches, severe headaches, exhaustion, nausea, and even severe pulmonary issues. The influenza virus can become very serious when untreated or not treated properly. Not to mention that people at a higher risk of contracting a more severe case of the flu include children under the age of five. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone in your family aged six months or older gets the influenza vaccine each year.

Teach Proper and Regular Hand Hygiene

It is likely a routine in your household to say “did you wash your hands?” each time you see a child emerge from a bathroom. And you are likely usually satisfied with an affirmative answer or a quick turn and eye-roll. But are your kids washing their hands effectively and frequently enough to prevent spreading germs that cause colds and other illnesses? Teaching and gently enforcing effective hand hygiene is one of the most practical and efficient things you can do to keep colds out of your home. Be sure to help younger children with hand washing as much as possible, and coach older children through a proper handwashing technique that works for your family. Some common guidelines include:

Wetting hands with warm water before applying soap; scrubbing hands with soap and warm water for a minimum of twenty seconds; thoroughly washing each entire hand, including backs of hands and between fingers; using a fresh, clean towel for drying, turning off faucets, and even opening bathroom doors. Just like 49% of people think their security habits put them at risk, your own hygiene habits are the largest culprits in getting you sick. There are also some helpful things you can do to counter your kids’ inevitable resistance: pass the twenty seconds (a lifetime to a child!) by singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” twice; counting down with a timer that they control; offering small, fun incentives, like points toward bigger rewards, for practicing your family’s hand hygiene routine.

Just as important: teach your children when hand washing is necessary, besides when they believe their hands are dirty. Some guidelines for this include:

After sneezes, coughs, or wiping their mouths or noses; before they handle, eat, or help prepare food of any kind; after using the bathroom anywhere; after they’ve spent time with someone who is ill; after extended use of a play area like a playground or playroom. And for times when soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is appropriate. Overusing hand sanitizers, however, can lead to dry and uncomfortable skin, and resistant germs and bacteria. The germs, viruses, and bacteria that cause colds can live on your child’s hands for up to twenty minutes – even more in certain conditions, so be sure that your family’s hand hygiene is clear, known, and practiced regularly. Compared to the amount of time and money you could spend on your home (almost $15,200 if you’re planning to sell), taking the time to teach proper handwashing is a drop in the bucket.

Sometimes Not Sharing Is Caring

Your children aren’t the only ones who need to be cautious about sharing with sick people during cold and flu season: you may be oversharing with your kids as well. There are a number of places where you expose your body to your children’s illnesses, and they aren’t necessarily covered by surface cleaning and hand hygiene. Pillows, stuffed animals, books, remote controls, game controllers, and even dishes and flatware are all examples of things that can be lovingly shared with your child during moments special or mundane. It’s impossible – and undesirable – to isolate yourself completely from intimacy with your child, but if they’re sick, it is worth the extra precaution in order to stay well and provide the best possible care. Likewise, be sure that your children are aware of how easily germs and colds can be spread by items they might share with peers and playmates. Many toys and books and games can be shared among children without any direct handling.

Teach Your Children How to Sneeze

Sneezes expel a great deal more germs than coughs do. They clear our lungs and nasal cavities of contagions, germs, dust, and allergens. And while allergy sneezes — which have a 1% chance annually of going away on their own — aren’t contagious, you can bet that sneezes during colds are. So it’s important that your children practice the best sneeze hygiene. Luckily for you, sneezing can be funny. At least funnier than coughing. It seems that everyone sneezes differently, and some with unintended comic flair. So children are likely to be receptive to new information about sneezing and hygiene. Be sure that your children know to direct away from people and common surfaces when they must sneeze; to sneeze into a handkerchief, a tissue, or their sleeved arm; to keep their nose and mouth covered during a sneeze; to wash their hands thoroughly after a sneeze. Germs expelled during a sneeze can blast out at speeds up to 100 miles per hour: consider how much space that can cover in a contained area. Reinforce for your children that sneezes, no matter how funny, need to be contained.

Some Things You Haven’t Thought of Wiping Down

Of course, you keep a sanitary and hygienic house. But even the most vigilant parents can overlook some common surfaces that can be exposed to lingering germs. Be sure that in addition to counters, bathrooms, doorknobs, kitchen sinks, and cooking areas, you are regularly wiping down other less obvious shared items and surfaces, such as remote controls, phones, tablets, keyboards, hardcover books, as well as keeping sponges, rags, washcloths, and hand and dish towels in a regular sanitizing routine.

Don’t Keep the Doctor Away

Each year, millions of Americans delay or miss proper medical care for a variety of reasons. Almost 3.6 million people miss medical appointments due to a lack of transportation, and others lack health insurance. If your family is fortunate enough to have access to both, make sure you are taking advantage of it. Don’t let old adages about colds running their course keep you from visiting the family doctor if you or your children have cold symptoms that concern you. Just like you should be visiting the dentist twice per year, annual physicals are a must.

Even with cold symptoms that seem standard, it can be helpful to visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Knowledge never hurts. Some things to look for that may require the intervention of the family doctor include: severe or unusual symptoms; symptoms that last more than about a week and a half; cold symptoms in an infant or toddler; symptoms that may be consistent with influenza, even if your child has had the flu vaccine (body aches, nausea, exhaustion). These symptoms look the same in just about every child, even if they have Down syndrome. Visiting the doctor early with any or all of these concerns can only help. In most cases, a common and transient cold will be diagnosed; in other cases, you will have caught a more serious illness very early.

Put Your Oxygen Mask On First

As with the helpful emergency diagrams on airplanes that advise you to put your oxygen mask on before you help others, be sure you are prepared and well to help your ill child. Take care of your child’s most important resource: they are lost without you. Following the guidelines here can help you be and feel at your best when the illnesses of cold and flu season make their way inevitably to your door.