Let’s face it: Kids and germs just go together. Babies put dropped pacifiers in their mouths. Toddlers share sippy cups and juice boxes with each other. Preschoolers use their hands instead of a Kleenex and cough with their mouths wide open. And children of all ages seem to attract bad bugs everywhere they go. Plus, playgrounds, restaurant high chairs and petting zoos can all be seriously icky germy zones. Here’s how to protect your child.
Germy Zone: The Playground. Surprisingly, your local jungle gym can be more germ-infested than a public bathroom. Why? “Restrooms tend to get disinfected often,” says researcher Dr. Kelly Reynolds, an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health in Tucson. “But playground equipment almost never gets cleaned.” Harmful germs — such as those in the mucous that kids wipe from their noses with their hands — can linger for days. Sandboxes are icky, too: Squirrels and birds that get into them can leave behind fecal matter, which has been linked to salmonella and skin infections in young kids.
Stay Safe: Tempted to clean ladders and handles with a disinfecting wipe? Don’t bother. It’s impossible to keep up with all the germs. Instead, teach your child not to touch his mouth, nose or eyes when he’s at the playground. Clean his hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel before you leave the park. If you have a backyard sandbox, keep it covered when you’re not using it.
Germy Zone: Your Pediatrician’s Waiting Room. Don’t be fooled by the antiseptic smell. With all the sick little patients (especially during cold and flu season), the waiting room is a virtual Petri dish. And then there’s your busy doctor: If he forgets to wash his hands after seeing each patient, he could transmit viruses to your child.
Stay Safe: Have your child wash her hands before going to the doctor so she’ll be less likely to pass along a bug to other kids. If she’s getting a checkup, ask if there’s a well-child waiting area (where the germ load is bound to be lower). Bring along your own toys so she doesn’t play with communal ones. “The last thing you want is for her to contract a different illness at the doctor’s office,” says Dr. Andrew Nowalk, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask the doctor and the nurse whether they’ve washed their hands before they touch your child. “It’s smart, not rude,” says Dr. Nowalk. “I wish parents asked me more often."
Germy Zone: Water Fountains. These contain more harmful germs than public toilet seats, according to a recent study by NSF International, a nonprofit health and safety organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Kids tend to touch the spigot with their fingers or their mouths, passing on germs to the next person who drinks. Cold and flu viruses can persist on the metal for up to 10 hours.
Stay Safe: Teach your child to keep his lips (and fingers) off the spigot and to let the water run for a few seconds before sipping. “That helps wash away harmful organisms,” says Robert Donofrio, the director of the microbiology lab at NSF International.
Germy Zone: Ball Pits. These enclosed play areas, commonly found at kids’ gyms and fast-food restaurants, are a breeding ground for germs. “Kids with leaky or dirty diapers play in them, and the pits rarely get cleaned,” says Dr. Reynolds. A child’s feces can contain E. coli, rotavirus and salmonella, all of which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. Children can also transport harmful germs onto the balls with their hands and feet.
Stay Safe: Don’t let your kids use them. If your toddler jumps into a pit before you can stop her, wash her hands as soon as you fish her out.
Germy Zone: Petting Zoos. These have been linked to major E. coli outbreaks in recent years. It’s not hard to see why: Farm animals aren’t choosy about where they lie down and have even been known to ingest their own poop. Traces of feces from an animal’s fur or saliva could easily get onto your child’s hands and into his mouth.
Stay Safe: Don’t bring a child younger than 3 to a petting zoo (or, if you do, let him look, but not touch). “No matter how much you warn him not to, a young child is likely to suck his thumb or touch his hand to his mouth,” says Dr. Nowalk. Even older kids may need reminders not to touch their mouths after petting and to use an alcohol-based hand gel when they’re done.
Germy Zone: Children’s Museums. Those buttons your child presses to activate electronic exhibits have been pushed by dozens of other little hands before hers, making them major germ conductors. Elevator and vending-machine buttons are just as germy.
Stay Safe: Tell your child not to touch his eyes, nose or mouth at the museum. If she’s too young to follow instructions, keep her away from the interactive exhibits, or bring along plenty of sanitizer gel or wipes.
Germy Zone: Shopping-Cart Handles. Supermarket workers and shoppers are constantly touching these handles and spreading germs. If the blood from raw meat reaches a handle, your child could ingest harmful bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter.
Stay Safe: Clean the handle with a disinfecting wipe before putting your child in the cart. You can also buy a shopping-cart cover. But keep in mind that these also carry germs (most of which survive longer in fabric than a plastic handle), so they must be machine-washed regularly.
Germy Zone: Pets. An affectionate lick from the family cat isn’t likely to make your child sick. Even doggie kisses are basically benign. But pets can transmit bacteria from feces on their fur and paws.
Stay Safe: If your child touches your pet before eating, make sure he washes his hands. Give your dog a bath once a week. And disinfect your home’s entryway often, since that’s where most germs from a pet’s paws and fur collect.
Germy Zone: Computer Keyboards. There are more germs on school computer keyboards than on doorknobs, according to a NSF study. That’s because door handles are polished daily; keyboards are rarely (if ever) cleaned.
Stay Safe: Teach your child to sneeze into her elbow and to blow her nose with a tissue, so she’s less likely to spread germs to keyboards and computer mice. At home, have her wash her hands before and after using the computer. Wipe the keyboard with a disinfectant cloth weekly and whenever someone with a cold uses it.
Germy Zone: High Chairs. A restaurant may be kid-friendly, but that doesn’t mean it’s germ-proof. Chances are the chair you plop your toddler into hasn’t been cleaned since the last child used it. Your high chair at home may not be so clean either: Germs commonly fester in corners and crannies you can’t reach.
Stay Safe: Bring along a disposable high-chair cover to protect your child at restaurants and wipe down his home high chair after every meal. You might also consider getting a model made with antimicrobial plastic, which does some of the germ-killing for you.
Myth No. 1: Kids Need to Get Sick to Build Their Immune System. While illness can help prime a child’s developing immune system, it’s not something he needs. “Routine vaccinations, including a yearly flu shot, boost kids’ immunities enough,” says Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., the director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center in New York City and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.”
Myth No. 2: Antimicrobial Cleaners Can Lead to Antibiotic Resistance. Household products won’t contribute to antibiotic resistance as long as they aren’t ingested, says Dr. Stuart Levy, a professor of medicine and microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Read the label carefully: Some cleaners must be rinsed thoroughly after you use them to eliminate the residue.
Myth No. 3: Soap and Water Works Just as Well as Antibacterial Soap. For routine hand-washing, soap and water will do. But to get rid of stubborn germs, you need to rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds (long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). If you can’t trust your kids to scrub for that long, use an antibacterial hand-sanitizer, which works within seconds.
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