Clean and healthy?

The real dirt on kids and germs

I probably spent too much time when my kids were little chasing them with soapy washcloths. I tucked travel wipes in their lunch bags and pockets in the (vain) hope they might give their hands the occasional cursory rub. I bought hand sanitizer in two-litre jugs and implored them to gel their hands when they came out of restaurant washrooms — after washing their hands. I went a little overboard.

Of course kids need to wash their hands: Along with routine immunizations and flu shots, it’s one of the best defences against childhood illness. But reports on the news are confusing. On the one hand, we hear about scary new illnesses, unstoppable infections and swine flu. On the other, we’re told we’re far too sanitized for our own good, possibly leading to increased allergies and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So just how far should a parent go when it comes to keeping children clean?

We asked our experts to clean up some myths about germs and keeping kids healthy. Here’s what they had to say.

MYTH: Bacteria are all bad. Period.
Not the case, says Mary Carson, program coordinator of the Do Bugs Need Drugs? program for wise use of antibiotics. “Bacteria are everywhere and the vast majority of them are helpful,” she says. “They protect us against disease, they help us digest our food. You don’t want to be killing off the good bacteria; you just don’t want to get infected with the bad ones.”

MYTH: If soap and cleaners are good, antibacterials must be better.
Nope. Antibacterial soaps don’t keep kids healthier. Carson explains that in a definitive study in Karachi, Pakistan, some squatter settlements were divided into three groups. One group was given nothing; another was given regular soap; the third group was given antibacterial soap. In the two soap groups, there were significant drops in the rates of pneumonia, diarrhea and impetigo, a skin infection. But there was no difference between the groups given regular soap and antibacterial soap.

Plus, all these antibacterial products may be reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics. Carson explains that triclosan, a chemical in antibacterial soaps and cleaners, can promote antibiotic resistance. Triclosan is like an antibiotic: It kills many strains of bacteria. But some survive and “learn” how to fight it. While triclosan isn’t prescribed by doctors for sore throats or ear infections, once the bacteria’s defence system is activated by triclosan, a whole bunch of useful antibiotics can become ineffective too.

MYTH: Children cannot clean their hands enough.
Not true. Our bodies have protective mechanisms against bacteria. Some of the good bacteria that live on the skin protect us against the bad bacteria — the good ones crowd out the bad so they can’t penetrate the skin, explains Carson. “Alcohol-based hand gels may kill many bacteria and viruses, but they may also kill some of the good bacteria on the hands. Still, washing hands with soap is the best way to stop the spread of infection.”

MYTH: Kids need a bath and hair wash every night.
That’s up to you (and your child). “Bathing and washing hair are personal matters,” explains Marilyn Lee, professor in the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University in Toronto. “I would say that they are not necessary on a daily basis.” While there probably aren’t a bunch of germs lingering on your child’s hair, Lee adds, daily shampooing is unlikely to do any harm.

MYTH: Our homes are full of germs. The cleaner we can keep everything, the better.
Our homes are probably just fine. “A lot of manufacturers of household cleaning agents and soaps want you to think that all bacteria are bad and must be eliminated,” says Carson. “But you’re not doing surgery in your kitchen. It doesn’t need to be sterile!” (Of course, you should scrub down surfaces where you handle raw meat.) Our kids may even do better with a little dirt around. “There is fairly well-established evidence that children who grow up without exposure to antigens (things like pollen and mould) early in life end up more allergic as adults,” says Carson. “You need some exposure.”

MYTH: It’s reasonable to flip out when your child licks another kid’s ice cream cone.
No one is advocating that kids eat off the floor, but take a deep breath. Lee recalls catching her two-year-old granddaughter on video at an anniversary party: A bite of food falls out of the toddler’s mouth onto the floor, and she picks it up and pops it back in her mouth. Yum! “Don’t try to create a sterile bubble,” says Lee. “Don’t even be concerned about that. What’s going to happen naturally is going to happen. Nobody would say you’re going to prevent 100 percent of illnesses, but you can try to minimize them.” Still, it’s a good idea to remind your child (calmly) that we don’t eat food off the floor or share ice cream with friends. And, adds Lee, teach your child that it’s better to hug a friend than kiss him — some germs, such as the one that causes strep throat — can be spread by kissing.

MYTH: The public pool is the germiest place you’ll go in the summer.
The pool is probably clean — the water is disinfected regularly and public health inspectors will shut it down if it doesn’t meet regulations, explains Lee. But the sandbox and the neighbour’s dog may carry germs; that’s why you’ll want to encourage your child to wash his hands after playing in the dirt or petting an animal. Surprisingly, your backyard barbecue may be a source of pretty worrisome germs. “Eating undercooked meat from the barbecue is risky for everyone, and cases of food-borne illness go up during the summer months,” Lee cautions. “We can’t really say why, but it’s a good guess that some of the illnesses are due to barbecuing — handling raw meat, cutting it up, not cooking it through.”