According to Philip M. Tierno, Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center Tisch Hospital, that idiom does more harm than good.
“That’s a false argument. There is no way that using a sanitizing agent like a gel or a wipe will interfere with the immunity development of a child,” says Tierno. “It’s a stupid concept and will result in your child suffering needless illness.”
The author of several books including The Secret Life of Germs explained that children are already exposed to germs on a daily basis, boasting their immunity. And, more importantly, 80 percent of all infectious disease stems from direct and indirect contact with germs. Coughing or sneezing creates direct contact with germs. Indirect contact comes from touching something that has germs on it—such as a door handle, a toy, or a keyboard. After touching something contaminated, if you then put your fingers in your mouth or touch your eyes, infection can spread.
“Where other people touch, it is expected for them to leave germs behind,” Tierno explained. If these surfaces aren’t cleaned, germs can surprisingly survive on them for quite a while.
A University of Virginia study testing the lifespan of rhinoviruses found that they can live on surfaces such as light switches and telephones up to four days. Last fall researchers had fifteen people with lab-confirmed rhinovirus colds spend the night in individual hotel rooms and after they checked out, tested ten items they had touched. The results? One-third of the objects were contaminated with rhinovirus, even after the maid service came in. While the toilets and toilet handles were clean of the virus, many light switches, telephones, pens, and TV remotes still had the virus on them.
What does this mean for parents of young children trying to get through cold and flu season unscathed?
Well, the good news is that there are things you can do to limit excessive exposure to germs for your children. Clearly, we can’t live in a bubble and incessantly clean our homes, but there are simple steps to take, which experts claim will lower the number of infections. Here is the top advice from Tierno:
* Teach your children to wash their hands correctly. Experts say to rub hands together with soap and water for up to forty seconds to be effective. This can seem an insurmountable task for young children, so devising a fun song to sing while washing, such as the ABCs or happy birthday will help.
* Find a day care or preschool that follows cleanliness rules. “My grandson’s nursery is very clean and sanitary. When I inspected the school, I was amazed at how they clean up—literally if six children are playing at a table, they will use sanitizing cloths with alcohol or a low chlorine type disinfectant to kill germs, and wipe the surface before changing activities,” he said.
* Ask about hand washing at your children’s school. It’s a given that children should wash hands before lunch—but do they also wash before snack time?
* Ask if your child’s school has a holding room for sick children when waiting for parents to pick them up. Tierno said he had to suggest this to his grandson’s school, which they now have. “Kids have runny noses all the time, but if a child has a fever or especially if there is any vomiting, it’s important for the sick child to be taken away from the other children (while waiting for his parents to pick them up). Having a holding room with a dedicated person to help the child is important,” Tierno explains.
* Teach young children to sneeze or cough into the crux of their arm instead of their hand. This way, if they don’t have a chance to wash their hands after coughing, they won’t spread their germs onto surfaces.
* Use antibacterial soap when handling raw meat.
* Use sanitizing gel or wipes when away from home.