How to keep germs at bay

Carrying around a supply of antibacterial products in your diaper bag that rivals a drugstore? Relax. Taking a sensible approach to hygiene can keep your child safe and healthy

Have you spent a small fortune on hand sanitizer in the wake of last year’s H1N1 flu pandemic? Would you describe yourself as an obsessive hand-scrubbing, wipes-carrying germophobe? If you’ve become preoccupied with worrying about your kids picking up one of those nasty viruses, don’t fret. To lower the panic level and put things in perspective, we talked to infectious disease expert Danielle Grenier, medical affairs director of the Canadian Paediatric Society in Ottawa, about the best ways to keep your kids clean and healthy in the places you frequent without going overboard.

Where: The playground across the street

Best hygiene approach: A quick handwash after play. “Kids will not catch many germs outside,” says Grenier, adding that being outdoors is the best defense against viruses, especially in winter. She says the fresh air and exposure to vitamin D via the sun’s rays all boost immunity. But Grenier warns that parents should keep an eye on young kids in sandboxes who could come in contact with bacteria-filled animal feces.

Who: Uncle Stan and Aunt Patty, who are invited to brunch and show up with a raging cold/cough

Best hygiene approach: Keep kids 3 months or older at a safe distance and wash hands, or postpone if child is younger than 3 months. “Ask them to please come back when they’re better,” says Grenier, especially if you’ve got a newborn whose immune system is developing. “I would not expose a young child to a person hacking,” says Grenier. “But if the adult is using proper sneezing technique and you’re keeping your older child away, I think it’s OK.”

Where: Daycare or preschool

Best hygiene approach: Frequent handwashing, ensuring vaccinations are up to date and an ongoing discussion with the daycare provider about sanitizing surfaces and toys each day. “As soon as you have five or more children under five years old in an indoor space, you’ve increased the risk of transmission considerably,” says Grenier. She says between Halloween and the beginning of May, “there’s a different virus every two weeks,” and daycares can become breeding grounds for infection, as kids share toys, food and other items. She suggests parents work with daycare providers to ensure kids are washing their hands throughout the day to prevent nasty bugs and reduce the spread of colds and flus.

Where: Shopping mall

Best hygiene approach: Keep visits to a minimum, particularly in peak flu season, and wipe or wash kids’ hands often. This indoor, public space is dusty and crowded, says Grenier, “and the more crowded it is, the more you increase the risk” of having your child catch something. She suggests popping in and out to run errands and avoiding malls in the weeks before Christmas. “Don’t go there for three hours,” she advises, particularly during the holiday rush.

Where: Public restroom

Best hygiene approach: Wash your hands — and your toddler’s or child’s hands–for about 30 seconds, whether visibly dirty or not. “If you’ve got a child in diapers, you have to have a good handwashing technique,” says Grenier, even if it involves washing one hand (while holding baby) and then the other. “There could be fecal material hanging around.” Also make sure you wash your child’s hands with soap and water instead of using wipes, which can’t clean under fingernails.

 Where: Hockey practice

Best hygiene approach: Bring your own water bottle and snacks. “Sharing a water bottle is a great way to spread gastrointestinal germs,” says Grenier, not to mention other nasties than can fell a sports team. Skip the communal approach and bring your child’s own water bottle, with their name clearly marked. Packing individual snacks rather than something they’ll share (like a big bag of chips) can also curb germs.
What: Flying/going on vacation

Best hygiene approach: Start by getting your child’s vaccinations up to date. “Plan six to 12 months in advance,” says Grenier, by checking to see if your child is properly vaccinated, if he needs any additional shots for the area you’re travelling to (Hepatitis B, malaria) and if the conditions are safe at your destination (access to clean water, etc.). As for plane travel, Grenier says it’s certainly “not the worst place; they’re getting pretty good at keeping us in our seats.” But if you’re sitting next to a very sick person with your child, ask to be moved.

Where: Public transit

Best hygiene approach: Wipe or wash your child’s hands after travel and move away from sick passengers. On the subway or bus, “you’re at risk if people cough on you,” says Grenier, or if they cough in their hands and then touch a railing. To prevent your little one from picking something up, wash, wipe or sanitize hands, particularly before eating. And change seats if you’re near a visibly sick person. If you can, avoid travelling at rush hour with tots. And don’t feel you have to keep your kid under that plastic cover on your stroller, says Grenier as “they might overheat and it’s not really necessary.”

Where: The doctor’s office

Best hygiene approach: Wash your child’s hands after she plays with toys in the waiting room and sees the doctor. A visit to the doctor shouldn’t set off alarm bells, says Grenier, as many of the people visiting aren’t necessarily sick. But she says factors such as long waits and tiny waiting rooms can increase the transmission of infections. If there’s a crowd, step out into the hallway and wash your hands and your child’s as soon as you can. Bringing your own games and books can also be helpful in keeping your child in one place.

Where: The grocery store

Best hygiene approach: Wash or wipe hands after visiting the store. “Any public space where there’s a lot of people, “raises the risk of catching something,” says Grenier. She says shopping in off-peak times can lower the risk. Washing hands is also critical as certain foods can harbour harmful bacteria like salmonella. Don’t let little ones handle meats, particularly poultry, and prevent babies or toddlers from chewing on foods that aren’t packaged.

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