Every year our ER gets busy right after Thanksgiving—‘tis the season for crying toddlers with fevers, runny noses, and diarrhea. It’s no coincidence, there are real reasons why illness spreads during the holidays. Here are seven tricks to keep your kids (and yourself) healthy this Thanksgiving:
1) Avoid the sick people at Grandma’s house: Chances are there will be at least one buggy-nosed kid at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re particularly unlucky, one of your cousins will bring a toddler with diarrhea and vomiting. No one skips Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house, even if they are sick. It’s your job to spot the sick people and stay away from them.
Sick toddlers with runny noses are the Typhoid Marys of the winter virus season. Keep hand sanitizer in your pocket and douse those dirty toddler hands the first chance you get. Keep their little fingers away from the cheese and crackers or you’ll all be sick.
The sick adults can be harder to catch. If you catch your brother sniffling and you’re not sure if it’s a cold or allergies, strike up a conversation about how much it stinks to be sick. Misery loves company, so they’ll quickly share all the details of their condition. Once they admit it, pass the hand sanitizer. They’ll get the point.
2) Use forks, not fingers: Include serving utensils for each of your dishes, including appetizers. Avoid cracker baskets, bowls of nuts, and other dishes that everyone dips their hands into.
3) Serve up your turkey well-done: Undercooked turkey can transmit salmonella and leave your whole family with vomiting and diarrhea. If you are cooking your stuffing inside your turkey, it is especially important to be sure it is well done. Consider putting the finished stuffing in the microwave for a few minutes just to be sure. If you are adding giblets to your gravy or stuffing, cook it outside the bird per USDA recommendations.
4) Skip the chitlins, chitterlings, and anything else made of intestines: Chitlins are a southern delicacy usually made of pork small intestines. If your cook is not careful, chitlins can cause diarrhea from a bacteria called Yersinia. They can also transmit other diarrhea-causing bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. If you just can’t give up your pig intestines, be sure they are well cleaned and not undercooked.
5) Don’t let anyone feed your baby turkey: If you have an infant under four months, it’s your job to be the food police. Grandma might want to give your infant just a bit of her turkey, famous stuffing, or cranberries. Thanksgiving isn’t the time to give them their first solid food. When your in-laws tell you that you are uptight and a little bit won’t hurt them, tell them about the new study in the journal Pediatrics that shows that starting an infant on solid foods before four months is associated with allergies, among other problems.
6) Teach kids how not to pick their nose: Does your toddler pick their nose and then reach for the crackers? Time for nose picking lessons. Here are my tricks for dealing with this nasty habit so that your whole family doesn’t share your toddler’s germs.
7) Get a flu shot: You and all your kids need flu shots before the Thanksgiving germ-sharing starts. Even if your family get-together is flu-free, your kids will be exposed to influenza once school is back in session. If you have an infant under six months who is too young for a flu shot, it’s even more important that everyone else in the home is vaccinated.
On behalf of the pediatricians at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, I wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving in your own home, not the ER.