Many families have heard of germs and how they are everywhere, but what exactly are they? How can parents help their kids avoid them? Hint: A lot of it has to do with proper hand washing!
Dr. Delma Nieves, research specialist, pediatric infectious diseases at CHOC, is here to answer all your common questions about germs, hand washing tips and how to help prevent further spread of pesky germs.
What are germs?
“Germs is a nonmedical term for any organism that can cause an infection,” says Dr. Nieves.
What kind of infections? Kids, especially in schools, can contract respiratory infections as well as skin infections, says Dr. Nieves. To prevent the spread of germs, especially in classrooms, parents, teachers and caregivers should make sure children are instructed on proper hygiene techniques, like handwashing.
How are germs spread?
Germs can spread many ways, including:
- Touching dirty hands.
- Changing dirty diapers.
- Through contaminated water and food.
- Through droplets in the air released during a cough or sneeze.
- On contaminated surfaces.
- Through contact with a sick person’s body fluids.
When kids have contact with germs, they can become infected just by touching their eyes, nose or mouth. And once they’re infected, it’s usually just a matter of time before the whole family comes down with the same illness.
“Sharing may be a good way for kids to learn social skills, but it’s not the best way to stay healthy,” Dr. Nieves says. “To shield children from ‘germ monsters,’ encourage your kids not to share items like utensils, food and drinks. Also, making sure they are up-to-date on their vaccines and seasonal flu shot is key.”
What’s the best way for kids to wash their hands?
Hand washing is the best way to keep germs away and to help prevent kids from getting sick.
Parents should teach their kids — or practice together — how to wash their hands using the following steps, says Dr. Nieves:
- Use warm water and soap for best hand hygiene.
- Scrub vigorously, and remember the backs of hands, between the fingers, under the nails and the wrists.
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds — or the time it takes to sing “Happy birthday” twice.
- Rinse and dry with a clean towel.
When and how often should kids wash their hands?
To help prevent the spread of germs, children should wash their hands:
- Before eating.
- After going to the bathroom.
- After blowing their nose.
- After playtime.
- After touching animals, including family pets.
Soap and water vs. hand sanitizer: Which is better for hand washing?
If you’re not sure when soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizers are in order, do a hand check.
“When you see actual dirt and grime, you need soap and water,” says Dr. Nieves. “You can use hand sanitizer when you know your child has touched something that may be contaminated, such as a doorknob.”
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If you are using hand sanitizer, know that 60% is the lowest percentage of alcohol a hand sanitizer should contain.
How to protect your kids — and yourselves — from germs
It’s best for kids to stay home when sick, but if missing work to care for them isn’t an option, parents should ensure good communication with the school to minimize the spread of germs to other students.
“If kids have a cold, they have to be extra cautious, washing their hands after touching their face or nose,” says Dr. Nieves.
Parents should also help their kids learn good coughing and sneezing etiquette to prevent the spread of germs. If your child sneezes or coughs, they should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue and then throw it out. If they don’t have a tissue, they should sneeze or cough into their elbow, rather than their hands.
How to clean household surfaces to get rid of germs
Cleaning household surfaces can help prevent any germs from being picked up by your kids at home. Wipe down objects around the house that get touched a lot, such as toys, doorknobs, light switches, sink fixtures and flushing handles on toilets. This is especially important to do if someone in your household is sick.
Soap and water are fine for cleaning. It’s generally safe to use any cleaning agent that’s sold in stores. But avoid using different cleaners or chemical sprays together because the mix of chemicals can irritate skin and eyes.
Parents can make a 9-to-1 is the ratio of bleach to water in a solution to kill germs on household surfaces.
Avoiding germs during cold and flu season
During cold and flu season, while there’s no protection against germs at school or the workplace, there are ways to reduce the risks.
Your child might have a cold if they have a stuffy, runny nose, a sore throat, a hacking cough or consistent sneezing.
Signs of the flu include fatigue and weakness, a high fever, severe aches and pains, headache and a cough. The flu spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
To help prevent these bad bugs, remind your kids – and yourself – to:
- Wash hands often to keep from spreading germs.
- Place travel-size hand sanitizer in their backpacks.
- Postpone play dates with sick kids.
- Bundle up to stay warm. Wear appropriate outdoor clothing.
- Make sure your child is up to day with all of their routine vaccinations, as well as seasonal vaccines like influenza and COVID-19.
Answering frequently asked questions about kids and germs
The term “germs” refers to the microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa that can cause disease.
Children under 7 years old have immature immune systems. Young children — especially those who may be attending school or daycare — are being exposed to new environments and new pathogens, or germs, that they haven’t experienced before.
At school or daycare, young kids may spread germs more easily because they don’t know how to cough or sneeze while covering their mouths. Younger children also tend to put their hands in their mouths, so the germs they touch on surfaces will end up being ingested.
Learn more about why your child gets frequent colds and other viruses from a CHOC expert.
Some kids may think that germs are bugs or other gross stuff. But germs are a nonmedical term for tiny organisms that can cause disease. To help explain germs in terms that your child can understand, Dr. Nieves suggests that parents tell their kids the following:
“Germs are so small and sneaky that they creep into our bodies without being noticed. In fact, germs are so tiny that you need to use a microscope to see them. When they get in our bodies, we don’t know what hit us until we have symptoms that make us feel sick.”
CHOC’s Community Education department offers classes in Orange County. The class, “Germbusters” teaches kids how to protect themselves when someone coughs or sneezes. Learn more about
CHOC’s no-cost community education classes.
For more health and wellness resources from the pediatric experts at CHOC, sign up for the Kids Health newsletter.
How to prevent and treat respiratory illnesses this season
Unfortunately, many kids get infected with respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter seasons. CHOC experts highly encourage all eligible members of households to receive their annual flu shots. Other preventative measures like good hygiene and staying home when sick can help protect families from illness. The following articles and guides provide more information.
From babies to teens, pediatricians from CHOC’s Primary Care Network partner with parents to offer immunizations, sick visits, sports physicals and more.