The Key to Holiday Health is in your Hands!

I hope your Thanksgiving was meaningful and healthful. Now it’s time to move on to keeping your kids healthy over the holidays. It’s no secret that kids share everything, including germs. But there is a secret to keeping kids healthy this holiday season.

Hand washing is the single most effective strategy in reducing the spread of infections. From the bathroom to the classroom, from the kitchen to the playground, hand washing protects kids of all ages – and even saves lives. Here’s how to keep the sniffles, sneezes, coughs, and stomach flu away from your home this holiday season (see also:  Chapter 9 in Germ Proof Your Kids – The Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2008)):

Kids typically spend less than 5 seconds washing and leave the sink with their hands dripping wet. A 20-30 second wash and thorough drying will reduce the germ load by as much as a 1000-fold. Teach your kids to wash until they finish singing “Twinkle-twinkle little star” or the “ABCs”; this makes your job easy because both songs have the same tune and last exactly 20 seconds each! Use lots of water and lots of rubbing with soap to create a good lather – include the wrists, between the fingers, and around the nails – followed by lots of water again.

How kids dry their hands is also important; the drier the hands, the fewer the leftover germs. Use clean towels (paper or cloth) and thorough rubbing; electric dryers aren’t as effective in germ reduction.

Simple soap doesn’t kill germs; it cleans hands mechanically, lifting and washing away dirt and organic material that contain germs. But, simple soap works. Studies in day care and schools show that the rates of diarrhea, vomiting illnesses, respiratory infections, and absent days are reduced dramatically by simple soap and water washes.

Products that kill germs include alcohol-containing “hand sanitizers”, and antibiotic-containing “antibacterial” soaps. Alcohol kills many germs on contact, and has been incorporated into “rubs”, rinses, foams, and gels that don’t require water, making them ideal for your purse and the glove box in the car. These are safe products, but will sting if used on cuts or scrapes.

As many as 3/4 of all liquid hand soaps are labeled “antibacterial” because they contain an antibiotic. Antibacterial soaps lower germ counts on kids’ hands better than simple soaps – but the benefits in reducing actual infections are unproven. Fortunately, it does not appear that these soaps result in resistant germs. The absence of an advantage of antibacterial soaps, and the theoretical risks of increasing resistance, prompted an FDA Advisory Panel to recommend against these products for home use, in favor of simple soap. The most common antibiotic in anti-bacterial soaps is Triclosan. Use of Triclosan-containing soap has also been implicated in the rising “epidemic” of allergies and hayfever in this country. The evidence for the association is weak and circumstantial so far, but since the benefits of Triclosan appear to be limited, you might as well stick with simple, non-anti-bacterial soap (if you can still find it on the supermarket shelves!).

Liquid soap in a dispenser is less likely than bar soap to itself become contaminated with the very germs we’re trying to protect kids from.

Germs get on your kids’ hands from contacts with other people, animals, and inanimate objects. The kids then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth and the germ invades and causes infection. Good luck teaching kids not put their hands in their own or each other’s eyes, noses, or mouths, so strategically timed hand washing is the next best option. Here are the 10 most important times to wash:

1. After playing with a sick friend or sibling (or after handling things that a sick child might have handled – like in the doctor’s waiting room
2. After using the bathroom (use the hand towel to turn off the sink and open the bathroom door).
3. Before eating
4. After high-fiving the opposing team at the end of a sports competition (or any other mass-handshaking event like the receiving line at a wedding or graduation).
5. After recess
6. After school or day care
7. After playing with animals or in areas where animals hang out
8. After playing outside
9. After blowing your nose, or coughing into your hands. Although your kids cannot “give themselves an infection” by contact with their own secretions, this is a very considerate gesture that protects other kids from the germs on your kids’ hands.
10. Before bedtime

Many studies have proven that effective strategies for hand washing, like those mentioned above, will keep your kids healthier over the holidays – fewer respiratory infections and fewer gastrointestinal infections. And when the holidays are over, continue using the “secret” and your kids will miss less school and day care, and you’ll miss less work

For much more about ways that personal hygiene, household hygiene, and community hygiene can protect your family from infections this winter and year round, see Chapter 9 in Germ Proof Your Kids – The Complete Guide to Protecting (without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections (ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2008).

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