It's that time of year again when colds, flu and all kinds of of "bugs" make our kids (and usually the rest of the family) sick. It’s enough to make parents want to never let their children leave the house.
But there’s one thing that medical professionals agree on to help prevent the spread of cold and flu infections and other “bugs”: hand washing.
Unfortunately, hand washing isn’t exactly something that kids, especially young ones, do on a regular basis without being reminded by an adult. And let’s face it, there are a fair number of adults out there who don’t always wash their hands either.
But, there are two very good reasons to insist on hand washing while our children are young: it creates a lifetime habit of hygiene and it can help keep kids healthier during the years when their developing immune systems are most susceptible to illness.
“It’s something we should all be doing more of. Studies show that adults don’t wash their hands as much as they should be,” says pediatrician Herschel Lessin, MD, of The Children’s Medical Group, which has seven locations in Ulster, Dutchess and Orange counties. “Since cold remedies don’t work and some viruses and staph infections don’t have cures or vaccines, hygiene is the only thing that works.”
Some bacteria can survive for weeks or months on hard surfaces, so it only makes sense to wash our hands regularly to destroy these germs. The influenza virus, for instance, can live for up to two days on surfaces such as doorknobs, countertops and telephone receivers.
When we touch our nose or mouth after touching these surfaces, we get sick. And with the worrying news of easily transmittable superbugs such as Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, now a frightening reality, doctors point out that such infections are easily preventable with proper hygiene.
School nurse Sharon Patsalos, RN of St. Joseph School in New Windsor, says that the news coverage about MRSA may have helped underscore the school’s efforts to reduce the spread of illnesses.
“The Kindergartners are very vigilant about washing their hands, I think because parents are more aware. Kids getting reinforcement at home. We all need to make an effort – both at home and at school.”Part of that effort is to reinforce hand washing at home, particularly in the following situations. Children should wash up:
- before eating meals and snacks
- after using the toilet
- after sneezing, coughing or blowing their nose
- after coming in the house from school, doctor’s office, daycare center, or other high-traffic places
- after touching a family pet
- more often when others in the home are ill
So, if washing your child’s hands with regular soap is good, washing with antibacterial soap must be better, right? Well, not exactly. “Antibacterial soap doesn’t work that much better than plain old soap,” says Dr. Lessin. “It’s the scrubbing [that gets hands clean], not the soap.”
Hand sanitizers, on the other hand, are an antiseptic, not an antibiotic. They contain alcohols, not antibacterial chemicals, so resistance can’t develop. Dr. Lessin recommends hand sanitizers as an easy solution when parents are traveling with children and don’t have access to soap and water. Many schools and health care facilities are placing hand sanitizers in high-traffic areas as an effective and convenient way to kill germs. Just be sure to supervise your child when using a hand sanitizer and keep it out of a young child’s reach. The high alcohol content could make the child ill.
4 ways to create a hand-washing routine:
It can be tough to get young kids to realize the importance of proper hygiene, but it is critical to create a hand-washing routine early on. Here are four ways to get kids turned on to cleanliness.
1. Start ‘em young. Once your baby turns into a crawler and comes into contact with all sorts
of bacteria, viruses and fungi on your floor, it’s time to start washing those little hands before meals and snacks. Make hand washing a regular part of your toilet-training toddler’s bathroom routine. When your child uses the potty, even if you wipe her, both of you should wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
2. Make it a game. There will undoubtedly be times when your child, especially a toddler asserting his independence, will resist. Make sure your child understands why hand washing is important – not just “because I said so”. Explain that germs can get on his hands, even if his hands look clean, and that germs can make him sick.
Then, make a game of it. An effective hand-washing should last 15-20 seconds – about the time to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, the ABC song or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Children should scrub vigorously between their fingers, under their nails and even the backs of their hands.
A foaming pump soap will make hand washing easier (and more fun) for both parent and child. Bar soap can be too slippery for small hands. Don't know which soaps are best? Check out Hudson Valley Parent's suggestions for four fun soaps for kids.
3. Slow down and do it right. Doctors say that when kids and adults do wash their hands, they often do it so quickly (and sometimes even without soap) that it’s almost like not washing your hands at all. Don’t forget that a proper hand-washing should take about 20 seconds – a lot longer than you think!
4. Set an example. Remember that young children watch your every move – when they see you wash your hands frequently and correctly, they will be more likely to do the same. Even if you are vigilant about hand washing at home, that doesn’t mean your child’s day care or school is. Ask your child’s teacher or the school nurse about how proper hygiene is encouraged.
How vigilant are you about keeping your kids healthy this winter? This year the Centers for Disease Control are pushing parents to get flu shots for kids over 6 months of age. What do you think about flu shots? Weigh in at our "It's Nearly Flu Season" forum.
Jennifer Billings is a freelance writer and a mother of one living in Orange County.