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Are you a self-diagnosed germaphobe? See how much you really know about bacteria, viruses and prevention.


By Melissa Tucker 

As kids get reacquainted with homework, old friends and classroom routines, they may also be re-encountering some germs they haven’t seen all summer. And as kids are once again exposed to bacteria and viruses, parents could also stand to brush up on good hygiene habits to get schoolkids and their younger siblings through fall and into flu season unscathed. So, here’s a little pop quiz for the parentals in the room. Grade yourself. High scores get fewer visits to the pharmacy. 

Parental Pop Quiz

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1. Define germs:  
Answer: “Germs” is a catch-all term for bacteria, viruses and fungi. Basically anything that’s too small for human vision to identify that can also make us sick. 

2. What’s best for getting rid of germs, hand sanitizer or hand washing and why? 
Answer: When hand-washing is available, it’s the best method for getting rid of germs. It reduces germs, pesticides and metals on your hands. When hand-washing is not available, a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is the next best option. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand sanitizer can’t kill the stomach bug norovirus, some parasites and Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea. Hand sanitizer is also not effective when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. 

“Whenever possible, use soap and water,” Arkansas Children’s Hospital pediatrician Hannah Renno said. “But if you’re at the amusement park and can’t wash your hands but want to eat your lunch, it might be better to use hand sanitizer than nothing.” 

3. To avoid spreading germs, where is the best place to cough or sneeze? 
Answer: The crook of your elbow. 

“You’re not likely to greet people with your elbow, and the goal is to avoid contact with your hands,” Renno said, “If you’re holding your shirt up or something like that, your hand will be in the line of fire and you want to avoid that.” 

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4. What place in the home is most likely to be hiding germs?
Answer: The kitchen sink. 

“The kitchen sink and the kitchen sponge are the dirtiest place in the house,” Renno said. “If you’re washing a plate with a grimy sponge and using it again and again, you’re covering your plate in bacteria.” She suggested cleaning the sink frequently with soap and water and using a bristle brush that can be sanitized in the dishwasher. The metal scrub pads aren’t harboring as many germs as the sponge, she said. “If it’s metal, it doesn’t have the same porous quality as the sponge. You can grow a lot more on your sponge than something that’s a harder surface.” 

5. What two ways do germs travel? 
Answer: Via air and water (or droplets).

“How germs move depends on the type of germ. Some are airborne and some are droplets,” she said, such as droplets from a sneeze and mucus or saliva. The airborne germs can remain in the air for up to two hours and expose anyone who enters, even if they don’t touch the person who is sick. 

“Parents should be aware there are different ways germs are shared,” she said. “For example, measles is airborne and that’s why it’s so contagious and scary. Chicken pox, or varicella, is also airborne. But the flu is spread through droplets.” 

6. Bonus question: How do you know if you’re contagious? 
Answer: Ask your doctor.

“If someone actively has a fever, they are contagious and should not be sent to daycare,” Renno said. “During flu season, be more careful with your baby under 2 months old. Make sure no one is sick around that baby.”

She said when a child is diagnosed with something, parents should ask their pediatrician about their level of contagion and how to prevent spreading that sickness. 

A Little Dirt Never Hurt

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While parents may fret about hand-washing and sanitizing sponges, Renno says parents shouldn’t stress too hard about germs because of the Hygiene Hypothesis. She said the surfaces of our skin and the insides of our bodies are a mix of bacteria, many of which are helpful and healthy. It’s best not to overdo it when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting because our immune system benefits from exposure to germs on a low level and “learns” how to handle invaders. 

“I think parents are trying to do well here and are accidentally ruining it,” she said. “Having the right amount of healthy bacteria on our skin helps prevent infections from unhealthy bacteria. You need to be populated with healthy bacteria so the bad germs can’t come in and take advantage of your system.”

The Hygiene Hypothesis speculates that widespread use of antibacterial soaps and cleansers may have led to an increase in allergies. 

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The solution? Promote cleanliness but also make allowances for some dirt. Don’t bathe your newborn more than once a week, she suggested. And let the kids play outside. 

“If your kid is covered with mud, wash their hands before they eat, but don’t keep them from playing in the mud,” Renno said. “In general, playing outside, getting dirt in hands and toes is great for your immune system.” 

To find out more on the Hygiene Hypothesis, search for it on fda.gov.