Germs: The Good, the Bad and the Useful

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When I solicited feedback and ideas for this post, a good friend of mine who is both a mom and a teacher, asked me to comment on moms who were excessively concerned about protecting their young children from germs.

These are the parents who refuse play dates and worry about letting their kids play on the playground—all in an effort to maintain a germ-free environment for their children. She wondered whether this type of excessive cleanliness could prevent a child from naturally developing a healthy immune system.Mom and daughter on a slide.

On the other end of the spectrum, a different friend (who also works at a school) asked me to comment on parents who send their children back to school too soon after receiving a viral illness. She wondered whether this might be spreading illness to other students.

This post is designed to answer both of their questions and strike a balance between these two extremes.

My first step was to present the Infectious Disease nurse at our hospital with these two situations. He explained that the precautions we take as a hospital wouldn't be applicable to parents because we are held to a different standard.

The children we treat are often immune-suppressed and have various illnesses. As nurses, we must protect our patients according to recommendations mandated by our doctors and infectious disease specialists. In the community, however, guidelines are different.

He suggested I review literature from the California Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for information for: 

  • What steps parents can take to prevent illness
  • What parents of sick kids can do to keep the illness from spreading

Both organizations believe that the best prevention is good hand washing and that immunity is increased by exposure.

Overly-Anxious Moms

It's natural for moms to want to protect their children from all threats. We would wrap them in bubble wrap if it meant they would stay healthy and whole! But is this in the best interest of our children? According to the CDC and Department of Public Health, these simple, common sense measures listed below should suffice for otherwise healthy families.

What steps parents can take to prevent illness

Vaccinations

This is a way to help your child's body build up its natural defenses. Read the blog post "Flu Season: Signs, Symptoms & Avoiding Catching It" for more details about why getting your child vaccinated for the flu season is so important.

Common Sense Precautions

Your child shouldn't have to live in a bubble, however, there are steps parents can take to minimize their contact with people who might get them sick. Teach your children not to touch their mouths, eyes, noses. Instruct them not to share cups, spoons, forks. Clean visibly soiled toys and play items, although disinfectant is not necessary.

Hand-washing with a Song

Teach children to wash their hands with soap and running water. A good rule of thumb is to have them sing the "Yankee Doodle" song twice, to make sure they've done it long enough.

What parents of sick kids can do to keep the illness from spreading

Girl in bedFever = Contagious

Stay home or keep your child home for 24 hours after being free from fever without using fever reducing medications like Tylenol or Motrin. A fever means the virus is "shedding" which means the child is contagious. Most fevers from flu take 2 to 4 days to resolve, so stay home from 3 to 5 days.

Keeping it Contained

Teach your children to cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze to minimize the spreading of germs. While hand washing is a great common sense practice to use in prevention of getting sick, it's also a good measure for sick people to take in order to keep from spreading their sickness to others. Viruses can still shed up to 10 days, so impress upon your child the importance of good hand washing practices.

Can you be too clean?

Nobody wants their kids to be filthy, but being too clean has a price as well. Bacteria are everywhere and many are essential to good health. Because of this, it's important not to overuse antibacterial products, a practice which contributes to the development of antibiotic resistant germs.

Baby chewingIn fact, some exposure to germs can actually be a good thing. Children explore their world by putting things in their mouths and many medical experts believe this helps them build their immunity, which is unformed at birth. Referring to this phenomenon in her 2009 article for the New York Times entitled, "Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You," Jane Brody writes, "Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that this one too has helped us survive as a species."

As long as parents are taking the steps listed above, they should be able to find that balance between keeping a clean household and allowing their children to build up their immunity through exposure to naturally-occurring germs in their day-to-day environment.

Finding a Healthy Balance

Our job as careful and conscientious parents is to find a middle ground. Encouraging good habits like hand washing and waiting the appropriate amount of time after an illness to socialize will help create a home environment that is clean but not sterile, wholesome not bubble wrapped!