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Coming Clean: How to Declare War on Germs (Atlanta Baby, Spring 2007)

This article on keeping germs at bay is aimed at moms trying to keep germ industry hype and their kids' health in perspective. (Available for reprint!)

Title: Coming Clean: How to Declare War on Germs

There’s the mom who scours every surface and never leaves home without three different kinds of wipes. Then there’s the mom who thinks nothing of retrieving an errant pacifier from the dog’s mouth and handing it back to her toddler. The rest of us fall somewhere in between: we wipe down what we know is dirty and cross our fingers regarding the rest. But how do you know if you’re doing enough – or too much? Read on for a breakdown of the do’s and don’ts of coming clean.

The lowdown: germs are a fact of life
Many of the germs kids pick up at school or daycare can’t be fought off by their immature immune systems, and they often pass on viral infections to their families. But you can’t keep your children in a bubble, says one pro who deals with germs on a daily basis: “Kids are all over the place, putting their hands in their mouths and touching other surfaces and other kids,” says J. Todd Weber, MD, Director of the Office of Antimicrobial Resistance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “You can’t keep a daycare or home 100% sterile,” he adds – it’s too burdensome. He advises parents to get a flu shot and remember that “hand washing reigns supreme.”

Best line of defense: wash your hands
Scientists and doctors agree: the most effective single act you can do to prevent infection is to wash your hands. But details matter: use soap and warm water, and dry your hands. Time spent lathering up is key. “If children sing their ABCs, they’ve done it long enough,” says Weber. Mom Heather Fullmer of Decatur uses Dial antibacterial foaming soap but worries about “the ‘washing away the good bacteria’ issue.”  But Weber says moms who are afraid of contributing to the rise of superbugs shouldn’t worry, since the problem mostly arises from over-prescription of antibiotics when they aren’t needed.

The rise in community-acquired Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) may cause parents to look for specific brands of soap. Robert H. Harrison, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Scottish Rite, says that people carry the bacterium around with them. “Most strains around the community are caused by one strain that is highly adapted to people, but it doesn’t live on inanimate surfaces,” he says. “The only thing that prevents spread of infection is soap that has anti-staph properties, like Dial, PhisoHex, and Phisoderm, or any product containing Hexachlorophene.” Harrison also advises parents to take showers rather than baths. “A bath can soften skin and make it easier for bacteria to get in. A shower is much shorter and reduces bacterial counts much more than a bath does.”

And don’t forget general hygiene. “Wash your hands before eating and after you use the bathroom,” says Harrison. “Keep your hands out of your nose and your eyes, and teach kids to cough and sneeze into their sleeves.” 

Call for backup: use alcohol-based gels
Alcohol-based hand gels are useful when there is no sink around, says Weber, although he warns parents to be watchful of ingestion by smaller kids. Mom Denise Thomason of Flintstone says her little girls, ages 4 and 6, use bottles of sanitizing lotion. “The girls get to pick out their favorite scent and color. The first thing they do when we sit down to eat out is get their lotion.”

Wipe on, wipe off?
The sheer variety of wipes on the market shelf can be staggering to parents who grew up dabbing at dirt with a damp paper towel and calling it a day. Parents who draw the line at more toxic cleaning techniques use milder wipes on public surfaces. “I pretty much just rely on Wet Ones,” says Katie Howell, a Decatur mother of a 1-year old. “That said, I've got them in the car, in the diaper bag, by the high chair, and at both grandparents' houses.” Surface dirt aside, there isn’t much parents can do. “Some viruses and bacteria are not transmitted via inanimate surfaces, and some are,” says Harrison. Bleach will kill germs on tables and highchairs, but, says Weber, “It’s far from benign. Parents should make sure to dilute the solution and rinse the surface after use. People can go a little crazy with cleaning. You don’t need to pull out bigger guns, such as industrial-use cleaners. These aren’t necessary for the house and are dangerous for kids – they’ll ingest it or get it in their eyes.”  

Placemats, shopping cart covers, and other products – when is enough enough?
Each year finds new parents scrambling for the next generation of barriers to put between kids and any public surface. But some parents are amused by the paranoia. To mom Ann-Marie Anderson of Decatur, “the buggy cover seemed like an amazing idea, but was only really useful for the short period between the baby growing out of the infant carrier and getting big enough to have her own opinions about what she touched.” And according to Dr. Harrison, “Many of these products are panaceas. You’re awash in germs. They’re part of the environment and part of your body. They’re all over your skin. That’s just the way it is. Most of this stuff out there is for parents that are frightened -- if they really want to reassure themselves, they should wash hands, take showers, and get immunizations and flu shots.”

And in Anderson’s opinion, “Kids have managed to survive for thousands of years. There are generally bigger issues to freak out about.” Mom Clare Schexnyder agrees: “I feel part of building up good antibodies is getting exposed to things. I try not to live in fear of germs.”

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