Are You Going Overboard Trying To Kill Germs?

Trying to find a balance between killing the germs and overkill is tough. We chatted with Dr. Benjamin Tanner, an expert in microbiology and immunology about this important question: How clean is too clean? 

1. What do you think is the best way to teach your kids hygiene especially during cold/flu season?

Preventing colds and flu boils down to respiratory and hand hygiene.  First, serve as a good role for respiratory hygiene by making sure mom and dad always cover coughs and sneezes.  When kids are old enough to understand, explain to them how cold and flu viruses can spread through the air and people might not always recognize they're sick at the first cough or sneeze, so it's important to always cover coughs and sneezes.  Second, explain to them that germs love to hitch rides on hands.  When around running water, handwashing is best.  If running water is not available, use Wet Ones Wipes to keep germ levels in check.

2. How do parents go overboard in trying to keep their kids germ-free?

Parents go overboard by trying to kill every germ everywhere.  The best practice is to target the places where dangerous germs are likely to be found and they are likely to spread to a person.   For example, don't waste time disinfecting a wall or window.  As a more nuanced example, consider a toilet bowl.  Dangerous germs are likely to be found there but the risk of transmission to a person from a germ inside the bowl is minimal.  It is more wise to disinfect cutting boards, rinse fresh produce well or change out an old, wet sponge that is used to clean food-contact surfaces.

3. Do you think the rise of antibacterial hand sanitizers is contributing to drug-resistant bacteria and viruses? Alternatively, are kids’ immune systems not developing as much because they are in such sterile environments?

Several robust scientific studies have evaluated households using antimicrobial cleaners and hand sanitizers to see if they produce drug-resistant bacteria.  These studies show that the use of such products is not creating "superbugs."  Scientific evidence suggests that low-level use of antibiotics in the feed of food animals and clinical misuse may be to blame.

4. What steps do you think are absolutely essential to prepare your kids best against illness/cold/flu?

Step 1:  Don't let children play with other children who may be sick with cold or flu.
Step 2:  Teach good handwashing habits and keep a package of antimicrobial personal care wipes handy for when handwashing isn't practical.
Step 3:  If a child in the household does become ill, launder their clothes separately with bleach or dry them in a hot clothes dryer.

5. Do you agree with the sentiment that "dirty kids are happy kids?"

The science suggests that dirty kids are less likely to suffer from allergies and asthma later in life, but that they are no more immune to infections than kids who grow up in super-clean homes.  The germs associated with soil are usually not dangerous.  However, children should be taught to avoid the kinds of "dirt" that harbor disease-causing microorganisms, such as animal waste from from birds or reptiles.  Also, dirty outdoor environments are generally less of a concern than dirty indoor environments.  If an indoor environment is highly populated (like a daycare facility), then it should be kept clean to prevent outbreaks of disease.  Lastly, children should be careful to wash hands after visiting petting zoos.