Keiki Health Guide: Got Germs?

by Sandra Gordon

Let’s face it—kids aren’t exactly the kings and queens of clean. After all, they’ve been known to share pacifiers, sippy cups and juice boxes, use their hands as a Kleenex and sneeze into the stratosphere. That’s not counting the bad bugs they pick up in places you’d least expect. Playgrounds, restaurant high chairs and petting zoos can all be seriously icky germy zones. Here’s how to protect your child.

germs under a microscope

Germy Zone: The Playground. Your local jungle gym is more germ-infested than a public bathroom, according to one study. Why? “Restrooms tend to get disinfected often,” says Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., 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—can linger for days. Sandboxes are gross, too: Birds and small animals that get into them can leave behind fecal matter, which has been linked to salmonella and skin infections in young kids.

Germ Defense: Tempted to clean ladders and handles with a disinfecting wipe? Don’t bother. It’s practically impossible to keep up with all the germs. Instead, teach your child not to touch his or her mouth, nose or eyes when her or she is at the playground, and clean hands with an alcohol-based hand gel before you leave the park. If you have a backyard sandbox, keep it covered when you’re not using it.

in the waiting room

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. Then there’s your busy doctor: If he forgets to wash his hands after seeing each patient, he could transmit viruses to your child.

Germ Defense: Have children wash their hands before going to the doctor so they’ll be less likely to pass along a bug to other kids. If they’re getting checkups, ask if there’s a well-child waiting area (where the germ load is bound to be lower). Take along your own toys and books so they don’t play with communal ones. “The last thing you want is for children to contract a different illness at the doctor’s office,” says Andrew Nowalk, M.D., Ph.D., an 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 Nowalk. “I wish parents asked me more often.”

Bug Magnet: Water Fountains. A typical drinking fountain contains more harmful germs than a public toilet seat, according to a recent study at elementary schools 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 five hours.

Germ Defense: 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, director of the microbiology lab at NSF International. Or take along a separate water bottle; just make sure your child is the only one who drinks from it.

ball pit

Bug Magnet: Ball Pits. Enclosed play areas containing plastic balls, which are popular at kids’ gyms and fast-food restaurants, are among the dirtiest places to let your child roam. “Kids with leaky diapers play in them, and the pits rarely get cleaned,” says Reynolds. A child’s feces can contain E. coli, rotavirus and Salmonella, all of which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. Young children can also pass harmful germs onto the balls with their hands and feet.

Germ Defense: If you decide to visit a pit, tell your child that he or she must thoroughly wash hands before and after playing.

Bug Magnet: 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 traces of feces from an animal’s fur or saliva could easily get onto your child’s hands—and (yuck!) mouth.

Germ Defense: Don’t take a child younger than 3 to a petting zoo (or, if you do, let him or her look but not touch). “No matter how much you warn her not to, a young child is likely to suck her thumb or touch her hand to her mouth,” Nowalk says. 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.

Bug Magnet: Children’s Museums. Those buttons children press to activate electronic exhibits have been pushed by dozens of other little hands before theirs, making them major germ conductors. Elevator and vending-machine buttons are just as germy.

Germ Defense: Tell children not to touch their eyes, noses or mouths at a museum. If they’re too young to follow instructions, keep them away from the interactive exhibits, or bring along plenty of sanitizer gel or wipes.

Bug Magnet: 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.

Germ Defense: Clean the handle with a disinfecting wipe before putting your child in the cart. If you buy a shopping-cart cover, keep in mind that these also carry germs (which survive longer in fabric than on a plastic handle), so you should wash them regularly.

boy with his dog

Bug Magnet: Pets. An affectionate lick from the family cat or dog isn’t likely to make your child sick. But pets can transmit bacteria from feces on their fur and paws.

Germ Defense: If your child touches your pet before eating, make sure the child washes his or her hands. Give your dog a bath at least once a week. Disinfect your home’s entryway regularly, since that’s where most germs from a pet’s paws and fur collect.

Bug Magnet: Computer Keyboards. There are more germs on school computer keyboards than on doorknobs, according to the NSF study. That’s because door handles are polished daily; keyboards are rarely (if ever) cleaned.

Germ Defense: Teach your child to sneeze into the crook of her arm 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 once a week—and whenever someone with a cold uses it.

Bug Magnet: Public 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.

Germ Defense: Bring along a disposable high-chair cover to protect your child at restaurants, or use a disinfecting wipe to clean it. Wipe down your child’s home high chair after every meal with disinfecting spray and a paper towel (the sponge you use to clean dishes or wipe counters could contain harmful germs). Also consider getting a model made with antimicrobial plastic, which does some of the germ-killing for you.