The start of a new school year is both a blessing and curse. The obvious upside: The kids are back in school. On the downside, you just know they’ll be home soon enough with the first cold of the season. But you need not dress them in HAZMAT suits to establish a strong line of defense.

Dr. Ankita Patel, a pediatrician with Novant Health’s Meadowlark Pediatrics in Winston-Salem, wants you to know: Getting sick is normal. The average child gets sick between four and six times during the school year, Patel said. But there are some simple safeguards you can put in place:

· Your whole family (with a few exceptions) needs a flu shot. Everything you need to know about fending off flu and where to get the vaccine can be found at

· Introduce good hand-washing habits. Because a restroom may not always be close by, ensure kids have hand sanitizer at the ready. Patel likes the kind that attaches to a backpack. Take a cue from grocery stores and keep hand sanitizer near your front and back doors.

· Cover your mouth with your elbow — not your hands — when you cough or sneeze. “Germs get spread through respiratory droplets,” Patel said.

· Keep Lysol or bleach wipes on hand. “Regularly sanitize surfaces your kids use often — desks, keyboards, cell phones,” said Patel.

· Opt for individual over communal, when possible. “Shared objects at school, like markers and the pencil sharpener, are the germiest,” Patel said. “It’s a good idea to send your child to school with his own pencil sharpener.”

· Drop it! Shoes and backpacks (likely carriers of germs via carpool or the school bus) should be left at the door, in a mud room or other designated space. “Backpacks are gross,” Patel points out. “Kids put them on the floor of their classroom or locker and then on the floor of the bus. And where do they usually go when they come home? Straight to the kitchen counter.” If the backpack is washable, add it to a load of laundry every few weeks.

· No nail biting or drink sharing. Both are like germ delivery services.

Even the best defense isn’t impenetrable. When your child (inevitably) comes home sick, follow these guidelines.

· Fever: Your child needs to be fever-free for 24 hours before she heads back to class.

· Ear infection: They’re not usually contagious, so your child can go to school if he or she is feeling well enough. If your child is on an antibiotic, the rule of thumb is to be on that antibiotic for 24 hours before returning to school.

· Vomiting: A no-brainer, right?

· Rashes: They can be contagious. So, play it safe, stay home from school and see your pediatrician.

· Lice: Once they’ve been successfully treated, your child should be able to return to class. It’s important to check with the school, Patel cautions. Guidelines on when your child may return to school vary.

If someone in the family does fall ill, sequester him! Other family members aren’t doomed to catch the same ailment.

Finally, this school year, resolve to be part of the solution. Keep your sick child at home. (And as the caregiver, don’t forget to wash your hands often.)

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