Feature Archive

Keeping Catchy Infections Contained

How to care for someone without getting sick yourself.

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Are you caring for someone who has a contagious infection? Good luck. Taking precautions to protect yourself at this point can be like closing the barn door after the horse got out.

People are often too late to guard against infection because they were probably exposed to the disease before symptoms appeared. For example, flu can be contagious about a day prior to the onset of symptoms, while strep throat can be contagious as much as five days prior to onset.

Children who are normally healthy are ill about five days each year. Their illnesses are likely to be flu, pink eye, gastroenteritis, and other contagious diseases, which readily spread to other members of the family.

Bacteria and viruses are the main culprits, and they're not easily contained. WebMD talked to three experts about what a caregiver should do to try to stay well.

What to Watch Out For

Controlling contagions and getting kids back to school as soon as they were well was the reason the role of school nurse was created more than 100 years ago. "School nurses have been behind vaccinations that have reduced or eliminated diseases such as smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and polio," says Wanda Miller, RN, MA, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) in Castle Rock, Colo.

But contagious diseases often confound the best efforts to control them. While adults are urged to get vaccinated for flu, the vaccines aren't always 100% effective. And flu can lead to serious respiratory complications, such as pneumonia.

Now there's concern about a resurgence of whooping cough (pertussis). "Babies are routinely vaccinated, but new evidence shows that vaccine effectiveness wanes after five or 10 years," says Dee-Dee Vallez, RN, MS, NASN continuing education director. "We made a recommendation on adolescent pertussis vaccination in the spring, and the Food and Drug Administration's Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices is currently looking at adult vaccinations."

Basic Prevention Strategies

Prevention begins with basic hygiene:

  • Approach hand washing as a survival skill, which it is.
  • Never touch your mouth, nose, or eyes without washing your hands.
  • Teach your kids not to share, as in guzzling milk from the carton or double dipping chips.
  • Family members should cover their mouths with a tissue when they cough or sneeze, and dispose of the tissue themselves.
  • You should also avoid sharing personal items like toiletries, towels, and pillows.

It seems ironic to say that staying in good health is one of the best ways to keep from getting sick. But it's true, says Miller. "For example, about one-fourth of all kids test positive for strep without being sick themselves. If you're ill with something else and your resistance is down, you could get strep throat. Getting proper rest and good nutrition can help improve resistance."

Advice From a Germ Freak

Allison Janse, author of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu, shares tips with WebMD on staying well when a spouse or child comes home with a bug. "Be prepared. Stock up on supplies before you need them."

Your arsenal should include:

  • A thermometer for each child
  • Extra toothbrushes and personal tubes of toothpaste
  • Plenty of tissues, toilet paper, and paper towels
  • Throat lozenges and anything else that makes the sick person comfortable

As soon as someone in your house shows symptoms, keep your distance from their coughs, sneezes, and objects they touch. Janse, who is a freelance writer and trade book editor in South Florida, says:

  • Use paper towels instead of community towels in the bathroom and kitchen.
  • If your spouse is ill, sleep on the couch or in the guest room, and use a different bathroom.
  • If a sick child crawls in bed with you, sleep behind them to avoid their coughs or sneezes.
  • Avoid contact with counters, utensils, phones, and other objects the sick person has touched.