Woman with a cold wiping noseRex Features

I don't know about you, but I am dreading the next several months. Not because I dislike winter (I mean, I love an open fire and a bowl of hearty soup as much as the next person), but because, like a seal pup staring into the gaping jaws of an orca, I'm about to be gobbled up by sick season.

With two toddlers at nursery, swapping snot with their friends on an hourly basis, inevitably there are months of runny noses, rasping coughs and vomiting ahead. And I could cope with all the Florence Nightingale stuff if I knew I wouldn't catch any of it myself. But I will. I'll get all of it: the colds, the fevers and, in all probability, the worst of them all – norovirus, or the winter vomiting bug. (We had it three times last year. THREE TIMES! All four of us! Other than to say we spent 24 hours living that scene in The Exorcist, I won't describe it further, I promise.)

Of course, once upon a time – when the first sign of a sniffle meant a gloriously indulgent duvet day – it was almost enjoyable to have a cold. But one of the many thousands of things no-one tells you when you have your own children, lest the human race ceases to exist, is that it'll be years before you're allowed to burrow under the quilt of self pity.

Coughs and colds must be given the brush off and ignored, aches and fevers can be acknowledged only when the children's every need has been attended to and, even if you finally succumb and admit you're ill, if whatever horrible thing you have has literally rendered you powerless to stand, you'll still hear this:

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Why are you in bed, mummy? You have a sore throat and a head that pounds like a Def Leppard gig? And you can't breathe properly? And you feel all achey and shivery and like you might pass out if you get vertical? Oh. Will you take me to football/swimming/soft play now please?

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Winter illness is horrid – but winter illness with children to care for is hell on earth! We have to beat the bugs. It's time to batten down the hatches!

Prevention is better than cure

One of the best ways to avoid illness is to get obsessive about hand washing. As simple as it sounds, it could prevent all manner of nasties working their way from the office/nursery/school/train into your house. Use hot water and soap, then dry your hands properly afterwards. Carry an antibacterial hand gel in your bag, too.

Eat well

Probiotics work. They do. I don't work for Danone, honest. But according to Professor Glenn Gibson, who has done much of the UK's research into probiotics and their functionality, they could be a very helpful addition to your shopping lists this winter.

"Probiotics are antigens which kick start our antibodies," he says, "and a boosted immune system will help you to resist infections and colds. Research from Germany has shown they can improve recovery rates, too."

According to Gibson, as long as the products are reliable, they are completely harmless. "You can take them in fermented milks, such as Yakult, Actimel or Muller Vitality, or in supplements such as Multibionta."

While probiotics can really help, eating well generally during the winter months will do so even more. As strong as the temptation is to stodge out when it's cold, the family who stuff themselves with whole grains, fruits and vegetables will stay healthier.

Ian Marber, aka The Food Doctor, author of Healthy Eating for Babies and Children, has a top tip for getting some of the key nutrients into the children to help them stave off the coughs and colds: "You can boost children's immune systems with probiotics by getting them to eat plain yogurt. Chopping in fresh fruit will add more immune boosting nutrients, such as vitamins A and C. And adding some sesame seeds will top up the zinc levels, which further boosts immune cell activity. Add some apple juice and whizz into a smoothie if your kids prefer that."

Fight the flu

Let's be clear here: a cold will make you feel ill but flu will make you feel like you're dying – not nice with children to look after. If you are in a 'high-risk' group you are eligible for a free flu jab on the NHS – do go and get it. You can't catch flu from the jab and having it significantly decreases your chances of falling ill with flu over the winter season (and passing it on to your family).

If you are not eligible for the free jab, you can go private. Boots, Tesco and Sainsbury's pharmacies, for example, are currently offering flu jabs – but their stocks are limited, so don't leave it too long. Despite the fact there is no reason for children over six months not to have a flu jab, the NHS only offers jabs to children in the high-risk groups – and you're unlikely to find anywhere who will give the jab to children privately either. All the more reason to get one yourself and reduce the chances of flu getting a foot in your door.

Stock up

You don't want to be waking up to fevers in the middle of the night and find nothing in the medicine cupboard. Do a shop for the whole family: paracetamol, ibuprofen, cold and flu medicines, cough mixtures and rehydration sachets (essential if you are hit by the dreaded winter vomiting bug).

Incidentally, if your local pharmacy is registered for the NHS Minor Ailment Service you can go along and get free medicines (liquid paracetamol for example) for the children without the need for a prescription from your GP.

And when the bugs are a bother...

Stay at home!

Really – going to work, school or nursery helps no one (no one will else thank you for it, and you won't get better as quickly). If you have the horrendous situation where everyone is ill at the same time, call for help. Ask friends or family to airlift in supplies (they can always leave them at the door!) or shop online to keep the fridge stocked with plenty of drinks.

Call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 if you're not sure about the severity of anyone's symptoms and, if you really feel you can't get to the doctor, call your GP who will assess whether you need a home visit.

Here's to a healthier winter!