UNC Health Talk

Sick Kid? How to Limit the Spread of Illness in Your Household

When your child gets sick, it may seem like the rest of your family is destined to get sick too, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.

“Older kids and adults may have already had the virus that the sick child has and may have some immunity that either prevents them from getting sick or reduces the severity of their sickness,” says Edward Pickens, MD, a UNC Health pediatrician.

Whether the virus is familiar or new, there are things you can do to contain the spread in your home and lessen the severity of sickness if it does spread.

The following tips are for once an illness has reached your home, but it’s important to note that one of the best ways to stay healthy is to make sure everyone in your family has the vaccines they are eligible for, including flu shots and the COVID-19 vaccine.

Read on to mount your best defense when your child is sick.

1. Prioritize hand hygiene.

Dr. Pickens says you should always practice good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of disease. Washing your hands and using hand sanitizer frequently throughout the day not only prevents outside germs from getting into your home but can also keep everyone in the household from catching the same virus.

“Most viral infections will be contagious before a child shows symptoms,” Dr. Pickens says. “The incubation period can last a few days, and the contagious period can start days before symptoms appear and last well into the illness.”

That means washing and sanitizing hands regularly, even when at home, will give you a layer of protection against illnesses that are present in your family but haven’t yet announced themselves with a runny nose, cough or fever. Dr. Pickens recommends washing your hands after using the restroom, before eating and anytime you come home after being out in public. Use hand sanitizer before and after interactions with people in public and while running errands. Dr. Pickens also says that relying on young children to practice good hand hygiene isn’t realistic—though it should be taught and encouraged—which makes it all the more important for older children and adults to wash their hands.

2. Protect against airborne transmission with distancing and masks.

While hand-washing is very effective at preventing the spread of sickness, it doesn’t do much to combat airborne virus particles, like those that spread COVID-19. If you suspect that your child has COVID-19 or another respiratory virus that is spread through the air, you can practice precautions such as isolating and mask-wearing.

“If you choose to go this route, everyone should be wearing a mask when around each other, especially the sick child,” Dr. Pickens says. “Even with masks, you should limit the time you spend around the sick person—no eating meals together and no chatting in the hallway. Don’t share the same air.”

If possible, the sick person should isolate in one room of the house as much as he or she can. However, if there are people in the home whom you really want to prevent from getting sick, the most effective measure would be for them to stay with another family member or friend until the sickness has passed. Of course, this is not realistic or possible for many families with young children.

3. Eat a balanced diet.

“You can improve your immune system by having good nutrition always,” Dr. Pickens says. “Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and limit your fast-food intake. Also try to exercise daily to make sure your body is ready to fight off whatever germs come your way.”

Even with a balanced diet, it can be difficult to get the recommended daily doses of some vitamins and minerals. This is especially true in kids, who often have picky palates. Taking a daily multivitamin could be a good option for the whole family.

Dr. Pickens says there is some evidence in adults that adding a zinc supplement to a balanced diet can make a modest improvement in limiting the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. But it’s important to note that zinc, vitamin C and other supplements will not prevent COVID-19 infection or keep you from getting seriously ill. Also, large doses of zinc can cause symptoms such as upset stomach and aches and pains. These studies have not been conducted in children. Ask your pediatrician if a daily multivitamin with zinc and vitamin C might be beneficial for your child.

4. Get tested promptly if symptoms appear.

In the age of COVID-19, no matter the symptoms that your child exhibits, it’s a good idea to have him or her tested for the coronavirus. Symptoms of COVID-19 are varied and can be different in children than in adults. If your child is positive for COVID-19, follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for testing, isolating and quarantining, and notify your pediatrician.

If your child tests negative for COVID-19, Dr. Pickens says that’s not a green light to immediately send the child back to school or day care, where he or she could spread the illness to others. The goal is to prevent the spread of all illnesses, not just COVID-19, he says.

5. Practice teamwork.

If parents get sick, they usually still must parent. But when possible, another parent or caregiver should step in to help so the sick parent has a chance to rest and get better.

“If you are run-down from the daily grind of taking care of a family, you will have a harder time recovering,” Dr. Pickens says.

If other kids in the family are old enough to chip in with chores and other household duties, this is a good time to enlist their help to get the whole household through the illness.


If you have other concerns about your children’s health, ask their pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one near you.