How to Keep Your Family From Getting You Sick Over the Holidays


Sick woman on airplane

Each year an entire day is dedicated to being thankful, and I’m fortunate to say that good health is always at the top of my list. However, as I sat at my mother’s Thanksgiving table this year, I couldn’t help but worry that one of my five children would end up coming home with more than a full tummy and a plate of leftovers.

Like many families, my siblings and I traveled great distances to converge at one dinner table. In the course of this one evening, the 30 adults and children who gathered to share in a glorious bounty of over indulgence also shared a bouquet of nasty germs. Through multiple finger-licks, mixed up beverage glasses, affectionate smooches, sneezes and hacking coughs, we shared the love –- and the germs -– like it was a big dose of holiday cheer.

Sitting around the table, it wasn’t just the occasional family drama that made me cringe. It was the fact that my very own relatives were so distracted by the “good eats” that they forgot to take some simple preventive health measures -– things that could have easily prevented the germs from being passed along with the pumpkin pie. While the seasonal flu may not be very prevalent right now, I couldn’t help but think that it’s only a matter of time. While the flu is known to come on as quickly as our post-turkey comas, its symptoms are much more severe.

Therefore, in an effort to prevent the flu from ruining future family gatherings, I thought I’d share some simple stay-healthy tips. (Remember, all you really need to know you learned in Kindergarten, but having a five-year-old, I can tell you that they teach things differently these days.)

First, if you are going to cough, sneeze, or laugh out loud with your mouth stuffed like a turkey, it is important that you turn away from the table, the food and all innocent bystanders. You can certainly use a tissue or napkin to contain those spewing droplets of saliva and mucus, but it’s also good practice to bend your elbow and fully bury your mouth in the crook of your arm. While the instinct to sneeze in our hands is a hard one to break, it’s important to keep our hands as clean as possible to avoid spreading germs to everything we touch – including the refrigerator door, the green bean casserole dish, or even the adorable cheeks of children that are begging to be pinched.

Step two: Wash your hands. And yes, that involves soap. On occasion, I’ve been known to use Grandma’s “Let me smell them,” spot check to ensure full cooperation on this matter. However, I’ve also added a few nuances of my own, by asking my five dramatic kids to sing me a verse of “Happy Birthday,” “Merry Christmas” or whatever tune seems appropriate, all to ensure they’ve scrubbed those hands clean. Of course, it’s not only appropriate to wash after using the bathroom, it’s also important to do so before each meal and after any episode of coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

The third precaution: Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. If you have any nasty germs hanging out in those orifices, then you will get them on your hands and spread them to others. More importantly, if you’re not careful, the germs you unknowingly acquired from Aunt Sally as she passed the potatoes can quickly move from your hands to your eyes, nose and mouth, to enter into your body and spreading illness in the process.

But let’s not forget that the number one, most effective precaution you can take is to ensure that you and your family are vaccinated against seasonal influenza. Since the flu is a highly contagious virus that results in an average of 23,600 deaths a year and over 200,000 hospitalizations, vaccination is the most effective means of prevention, which is why it is recommended by the CDC for everyone over the age of six months. Since children younger than six months are at high risk of serious flu illness, but are too young to be vaccinated, it is important that all people who care for these children, including pregnant women, are vaccinated themselves to help “cocoon” the child from illness.

It’s simple really, and it sure can save you and your family a great deal of suffering. (Remember, who cares for children when they are sick? And who will care for you when you fall ill?) To help avoid illness, inquire about the seasonal flu vaccine with your health care provider or local pharmacy. With the introduction of a nasal flu vaccine (FluMist), you can sniff it up your nose, or continue to take it as a needle in the arm. However you decide, don’t wait. It takes about two weeks from when you receive the vaccine for antibodies to develop and provide you with protection against infection. Therefore, I urge you to get vaccinated soon. Before you know it, we’ll be gathering around that table for Christmas ... and the next round of germ-spreading holiday love.

For more detailed information on seasonal influenza or how to stop the spread of germs, visit the Center for Disease Control. To join the online conversation about immunizations, visit the Shot of Prevention blog, or become a friend of the Vaccinate Your Baby Facebook page.


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