If you have a school-age child, you’ll likely deal with multiple colds and stomach bugs throughout the school year. Germs are to blame. These tiny organisms that can cause disease spread fast and efficiently, which is why it’s so easy to get sick in a communal area like a classroom. They spread through the air, body fluids, skin, and they can even live on surfaces outside of the body for several days.
“There are four main types of germs—bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites,” said Salwa E. Sulieman, D.O., a pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University/Nemours. “They live everywhere and can be found on people, animals, plants, and in our homes and schools.”
While your immune system works to fight off the germs you encounter, you and your child can be partners in the battle by doing a few simple things to reduce their risk for getting sick.
Teach Them to Avoid the “Germiest” Places at School
While germs can be found virtually anywhere, some places are more likely to be breeding grounds than others.
“Children are more likely to encounter germs on frequently touched surfaces, such as bathroom faucets and toilet handles, railings, door handles, keyboards, and water fountains,” said Dr. Sulieman. “The best way to avoid germs is to wash your hands frequently.”
Singing While You Wash Your Hands
Washing your hands is the best way to keep germs at bay, but simply running your hands under cold water for a second or two isn’t enough. Dr. Sulieman recommends teaching your kids to sing while they wash.
“The correct way to wash your hands is to use soap and warm water, rubbing your hands together for at least 20 seconds,” said Dr. Sulieman. “Since time can be hard to judge for younger children, teach them to sing their ABCs or Happy Birthday from beginning to end twice while they wash.”
Cover Your Mouth When You Cough or Sneeze
Germs move fast and far. The germs from a sneeze can shoot out of your mouth and nose at 100 miles per hour and travel as far as 25 feet. If you don’t cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, it’s virtually impossible for anyone around you to avoid being exposed to your germs.
Teach your kids to cover their mouth every time they feel a cough or a sneeze coming on.
“The best way to cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing is into your elbow—not your hand,” said Dr. Sulieman. “Germs can live on your unwashed hands for quite a while, which makes them easy to spread.”
Teach your kids to do the “Dracula sneeze,” covering their mouth with the inside of their elbow. The movement looks a lot like the infamous vampire covering his face with his cape, which makes it easy to remember.
What About Hand Sanitizer?
Many parents pack hand sanitizer in their child’s backpack to help fight the spread of germs. While this can be a good solution when soap and water are not available, Dr. Sulieman advises that hand sanitizer should not replace handwashing—the gold standard when it comes to killing germs.
“I also do not recommend packing hand sanitizer in children’s bags if they are not old enough to use it properly,” said Dr. Sulieman. “We want to avoid accidental ingestion, especially since sanitizers are often fragrant and tempt younger kids to smell and taste them.”
Good Habits Start at Home
Like any lesson you teach your children, germ-fighting hygiene practices should be taught and reinforced at home.
“Try to get your kids in the habit of washing hands before and after meals and bathroom trips at home,” said Dr. Sulieman. “This will get them in the habit so it becomes second nature at school.”