It's freezing cold, so out come the bugs-the flu bugs, the cold bugs, and the other bugs that plague us this time of year. In a household of children, it often seems that the family just makes it through one illness when another round begins. The following tips may help keep the bugs from biting, or at least lessen the sting.

Wash your hands. We all know this one. But it's important to remember that it's the rubbing of the hands together that kills the bugs more than the presence of soap-even an antibacterial one. To ensure you get the most out of handwashing, teach younger children to sing their ABC's while washing their hands. That gives time for the washing to kill germs. Older children need to know to wash for about 30 seconds.

Watch the nutrition. Stick to a diet full of fruits and veggies. The vitamins and minerals boost the immune system making it easier to fight off whatever germs invade before they manifest as illness. Sugar, because it is so easily broken down, is the perfect food for bacteria helping them flourish and cause more severe illness. This is especially true for bacteria in the throat such as strep. Sugar plus any liquid, for example cookies and milk, becomes a gooey syrup which makes a gooey throat even gooier. This becomes a great medium for bacteria to grow and thrive. Avoid sugar once ill to help "starve" bacteria and get over any illness.

Use paper. Once germs invade a member of your household, you can help keep them from spreading by having the infected member use paper plates, cups and tissue. Clean up after them with paper towel rather than a sponge or washcloth. Throwing away what they touch, combined with keeping them somewhat isolated, can stop the cycle before it spreads to others.

Keep medications on hand. Check with your physician for recommendations on what medications are safe for you and your children to take, then keep a supply on hand. Recent legislation mandates that many cold medicines be kept behind the pharmacy counter. Even if the store is open and the medication is over-the-counter rather than prescription, you won't be able to buy it if the pharmacy section is closed. Not what you want to hear at 9:30 p.m. when your little one develops a racking cough and has difficulty breathing.

Get enough sleep. Our immune systems recharge while we're sleeping. Immune systems under attack need more recharge, so we need more sleep. Rested children are less likely to become ill and recover more quickly if they do get sick. Set a bed time for tots to teens and enforce it. It can be hard to get little ones who just want to cuddle or teens who need to finish homework to comply, but it's important. If the bedtime is set and firm, children will set their schedule to accommodate. You also need to be conscious about getting enough sleep to fight off all the bugs your children bring home and to have the stamina to care for them.

Use discretion in activities. It's the time of year to be picky about where children go. Large gatherings are often a virtual breeding ground for whatever germs are making the rounds. If you have small children, this may be the time to pull back from some of these activities - especially if your family has had more than their fair share of illness. For older children who have to go to their functions, make a nuisance of yourself in reminding them to wash hands, refuse to share food or drink and cough into their elbow.

On the other hand, if your children are sick, be kind to others by keeping them home instead of sharing the family illness with the group at large. Though you may really just want to get out of the house, knowingly taking sick children to school, day care or the church nursery is inconsiderate at best. A better alternative is to curl up with your children and bring out the old books and videos until the illness has passed. Take advantage of your spouse being home or the presence of a good friend to get out for a break for yourself while the children stay home.

The winter bugs are out. If moms, dads and children follow these tips, a little prevention and a little luck may help your family will get through the season with as few bites as possible.

Tess is the mother of eight and teaches parenting and marriage. E-mail her at tess@family-matters.us.

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