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Indoor allergies can get worse in winter, thanks to tightly closed windows, which seal in furnace fumes, dust, mold, smoke, pet dander, and other triggers. The symptoms are easy to mistake for a hard-to-shake cold: sniffles, wheezing, itchy eyes, persistent cough, or chest congestion. If you suspect you've got an indoor allergy, have it diagnosed with a skin test. Treatments range from allergy-proofing your home (learn how at epa.gov/asthma) to vaccine therapy -- something parents should consider if medication doesn't control a child's allergies, says Todd Rambasek, MD, a pediatric allergy and asthma specialist in Cleveland. Overcoming allergies can prevent or lessen the severity of asthma, a chronic lung disease that kills about 4,000 Americans every year.FEBRUARY: Get Heart Smart
Moms and dads aren't the only ones in the family who need regular cholesterol checkups. Children between the ages of 2 and 10 who are at high risk for heart disease should also get a blood test for cholesterol, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Other than obesity, high-risk categories include having diabetes, a strong family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, and high blood-pressure readings, says Stephen R. Daniels, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at the Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colorado. If the results are normal, kids -- like adults -- should be retested every five years. Doctors are looking at whether all children should be tested at least once, but no new recommendations had been released as of press time.MARCH: Put the Kids to Bed
Bad sleep habits can become even worse when it's time to set the clock ahead for daylight saving time, which begins this year on March 14. "If your kids already stay up too late, the extra hour of evening sunlight may encourage you to push bedtime even later," says William C. Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute, in Spring Hill. Sleep-deprived kids don't perform as well academically and are likelier to have behavior and discipline problems. Dr. Kohler recommends setting bedtimes so children and teens log about nine hours before they wake up for school. And plan ahead for the "spring forward" time change: Starting three to seven days before the change, gradually make their bedtime and wake-up time about an hour earlier.APRIL: Protect Your Smile
Regular exams and cleanings, plus fluoride treatments and orthodontic care for kids, keep minor dental problems in check. Cavities, for instance, are easy to fix if caught early -- ignore them and you may need an expensive root canal. Your dentist may encourage everyone in the family to come every six months, but your insurance (if you have it) may not cover visits that frequent. The good news? A recent review found no significant evidence that twice a year is best. "As long as your teeth and gums are healthy and you brush and floss daily, it's probably safe to stretch out visits to every eight months or so," says American Dental Association spokesman Richard H. Price, DMD.MAY: Take Care of Ticks
It's time to defend against Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis. Ticks gravitate to shade, leaves, and long grass where it's damp, so keep lawns mowed, remove brush, trim trees to let in sunlight, and consider applying pesticide around your yard's perimeter. After being outdoors in a tick-infested area, check everyone's skin, including armpits, scalp, and groin; remove any ticks with tweezers and freeze in a plastic bag to show to the doctor, if needed. Wash clothes with hot water and dry on high at least an hour. Contact your doctor if you have symptoms such as fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, or a circular rash around a bite (see cdc.gov/features/lymedisease).JUNE: Safeguard Your Skin
Applying sunscreen should be a year-round habit, but summer is a key time for everyone in the family to apply a product with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. All that fun in the sun increases the risk of skin cancer, not to mention painful sunburns and premature wrinkles. To get enough protection, you need to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, so keep a bottle handy in your purse, your car's glove compartment, and your kids' backpacks. For added protection, wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. Using a UV-blocking laundry rinse on clothing will up the sun protection of an average T-shirt from a rate of 5 to 30 -- and it's far cheaper than stocking up on special UV-protective clothes.
The long days and loose schedules of summer make it the perfect time to exercise as a family. "Show your kids that leading an active lifestyle can be fun and joyful; it's a lesson that will help them stay healthy for their entire lives," says internist Gary Rogg, MD, of Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, New York. Just be sure that you avoid the word exercise -- playtime shouldn't seem like a chore or work. Instead, schedule fun physical activities that the whole family can do together such as biking, hiking, swimming, or playing hide-and-seek, capture the flag, or a lively game of kickball. Being active together is not only good for your health, it's also a terrific way to get closer to your children.AUGUST: Visit Your Farmers' Market
A healthy diet that fights disease includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day -- an amount only 11 percent of Americans eat, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study. Right now the stalls at your local farmers' market are piled high with ears of corn, squash, ripe berries, peaches, plums -- even early apples. Try varieties that don't show up at many supermarkets, like heirloom tomatoes and unusual melons. "People are often amazed at how flavorful a just-picked locally grown tomato or peach can be," says nutrition expert Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, coauthor of The Ultimate Diet Log. "It can make you look forward to eating veggies."SEPTEMBER: Get in Focus
The odds are good that your kids get an annual eye exam -- a standard part of a well-child visit. But what about your eyes? If you (or your spouse) haven't been to an eye doctor recently, make an appointment. Every adult needs a periodic vision and glaucoma exam; your doctor will tell you how often. From age 40 on, you should get checked for presbyopia -- the natural gradual loss of lens flexibility -- especially if you're holding books farther away, can't see the computer clearly, or get headaches after close work like checking e-mail on your PDA. Solutions include reading glasses or special contact lenses.OCTOBER: Ward Off Colds and Flu
To keep sick days at both school and work to a minimum, everyone in the family should get a flu shot (or two -- last year an additional H1N1 vaccine was recommended for many Americans). Your second line of defense against viruses and other bugs: frequent hand-washing. Since it's hard for kids to lather up regularly when they're at school, tuck travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer into coat pockets, gym bags, and backpacks (yours, too). Studies show that these alcohol-based gels can be as effective as soap and water in reducing the spread of germs.NOVEMBER: Scale Back on Sugary Drinks
Eighty-four percent of teens chug at least one sugar-sweetened beverage on a typical day, notes a recent Columbia University study. Cavities aren't the only concern: Research shows kids (and adults) who regularly drink soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened iced tea are at greater risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. Switch everyone to water, low-fat milk, and diet soft drinks. And don't be fooled into thinking that 100 percent juice is okay, says Larry C. Deeb, MD, past president of the American Diabetes Association. "You get vitamins, but fruit juice still has lots of sugar and no fiber. Stick to one small glass a day."DECEMBER: Be a Volunteer
Giving back is good for you. Volunteering lowers rates of depression and may decrease your risk of disease as well as extend your life by several years, according to a review of more than 30 studies from the Corporation for National and Community Service. As little as one or two hours a week of helping out can improve your health. So get your whole family involved. And start your commitment right now: It's a great way to celebrate the true holiday spirit and escape some of the season's frenzied consumerism. For suggestions on how to begin, go to thevolunteerfamily.org.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2010.