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How to Help Your Kids Prevent the Spread of Germs at School

By Heather Levin

washing handsOnce the kids head back to school, it’s time to brace yourself for the inevitable cold and flu germs that will start showing up in your home on a regular basis. Germs and viruses are rampant in classrooms, and most kids (and their families) get sick several times throughout the school year.

On average, more than 22 million school days are lost each year due to contagious illness. However, there are things you can do to limit the amount of germs that come into your home, and how often your kids are exposed to those germs.

Tips to Fight Germs

1. Wash Your Hands
There’s a good reason why doctors stress again and again the importance of keeping your hands washed and clean: It’s the single most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness.

Teach your kids the importance of hand washing first at home. They should wash their hands for 20 seconds, or about how long it takes them to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. You can encourage hand washing by washing your own hands whenever they need to wash theirs.

Kids also need to know when to wash: after using the bathroom, after touching common toys or learning tools, or after coughing or sneezing. Of course, in a classroom environment, frequent hand washing isn’t always possible. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

2. Use Hand Sanitizer
Studies show that hand sanitizer works, even when it’s alcohol-free. In one study, published in the journal Family Medicine, doctors found that hand sanitizer reduced illness-related absenteeism in elementary school children by more than 40%.

Kids often find it easier to use sanitizer than wash their hands because it’s quicker, and it’s also more realistic for when they’re in a classroom environment. Give each of your kids a personal bottle to keep at their desk or in their backpack, and instruct them on how to use it properly.

3. Don’t Touch!
Try to communicate how important it is that your kids not touch their nose, face, eyes, or ears during the day. Germs can quickly infect you through these access points.

Of course, if your kids are young, this is going to be almost impossible. They’re just not going to think of this (or about washing their hands regularly) during the day. This is why repetition is so important.

You could also try making a game of this when you’re out together. Tell your kids that you’ll be watching what they do when you’re all out together at the mall or a baseball game (or any other family outing). Every time you catch them touching their face, eyes, mouth, or nose with unclean hands, you’ll dock them a point. Whoever has the least amount of points docked by the end of the day gets a special prize or treat.

While you can only play this game when you’re with them, it is a good way to encourage the behavior you want. Hopefully they’ll eventually limit touching these areas over time, and limit their exposure to germs.

Home Tips

Of course, there’s only so much you can do to teach your kids to fight germs at school. But there’s plenty you can do at home to make sure germs have a hard time thriving:

  • Clean surfaces with antibacterial wipes or bleach daily. This is especially important for doorknobs, remote controls, computer keyboards, and desks or tables where the kids sit down to do homework.
  • Keep tissues in accessible areas, and instruct your kids to use a tissue whenever they need to sneeze or blow their nose. Encourage them to throw the tissue away immediately. Reusing it or putting on a tabletop will only risk the spread of germs.
  • Make sure you and your kids stay hydrated. Drinking lots of water, especially during the dry winter, keeps mucus membranes moist. Mucus is what helps keep germs and bacteria from gaining a foothold in your body.
  • Regularly disinfect your kitchen sponge. The innocuous kitchen sponge is probably one of the germiest items in your home – kitchen sponges have been found to carry more than 134,000 bacteria per square inch. Replace your sponges each week, or disinfect them in the microwave (on high for two minutes). Using a fresh dishrag each day, instead of a sponge, will also cut down on the amount of bacteria you’re spreading.

kids

Where Are the Most Germs?

So, where are your kids most likely to pick up germs while at school? There are some really germy culprits that might surprise you:

1. Backpacks
Think about where your kids’ backpacks go: on the floor at school, or in a locker that’s probably cleaned once a year. And if they go on a bus or use public transportation, that backpack is exposed to countless dirty things on the floor. Backpacks also carry food, wet or sweaty gym clothes, and lots of other things besides homework. Worst of all, they don’t get washed that often.

Don’t let your kids toss their backpacks on the table – it’s best to keep them out of the main house altogether. Consider keeping them in a mudroom or by the backdoor. Whenever your kids pull out items from their backpack, encourage them to wash their hands. And remember to wash their backpacks regularly.

2. Portable Electronic Devices
Portable electronics such as cell phones, e-readers, and tablets often have bacteria levels that are off the charts. In one study conducted by the London School of Hygiene, in the UK, researchers found that 16% of the cell phones they tested had E.coli, a bacteria that comes from fecal matter and can cause cramps, nausea, and diarrhea after just one exposure. Although 95% of the people questioned said they wash their hands regularly, 92% of the cell phones were contaminated with bacteria.

Cell phones and other electronics make it really easy for bacteria and germs to breed because there are a lot of nooks and crannies, they’re rarely cleaned, and they’re warm. When kids touch these devices, and then touch something else like a pencil, a desktop, or another person, they quickly spread germs.

Educate your kids on how germs can easily be spread through their electronic devices. Teach them not to take these devices into the bathroom (or at least not to use them while they’re in the bathroom), and not to touch them before, during, or after eating. Wipe all handheld electronic devices down with antibacterial wipes daily.

3. Computer Keyboards
Think of how many kids touch the computer keyboard in a classroom setting or computer lab. Most computer keyboards contain 200 times more germs than a toilet seat. Why? Because toilets are cleaned more often than keyboards.

Make sure you regularly clean the keyboards and mice in your home using antibacterial wipes. And while cleaning the school computers is out of your reach, you can instruct your kids to wash their hands or sanitize both before and after using the school computers.

4. Cafeteria Tables
Cafeteria tables are perfect breeding grounds for germs. They’re exposed to a large number of different hands over a short period of time, and food residue left on the tables makes it easy for germs to multiply.

Communal silverware is also the perfect place to spread germs, especially if the “eating end” is facing upwards. Kids often touch many utensils, even accidentally, when they’re reaching for one fork or spoon.

This is another time when your kids should be instructed to wash their hands before and after eating. Sanitizer also comes in especially useful at lunchtime. You can also limit the spread of germs by letting your kids bring reusable silverware with them to eat with. Many companies make portable eating utensils out of bamboo, in brightly colored carrying cases, just for this purpose.

5. Desktops
Are you ready for this one? According to doctors interviewed by MSN, the average school desktop has 400 times more germs than a toilet seat. This is especially worrisome in middle and high schools where kids change classes each hour. Germs can quickly spread just by touching these desks.

If your kids are old enough, send them to school with portable Clorax wipes to clean their desktop each day. Encourage them to wash their hands during the day, or use sanitizer after they’ve touched their desktop. Again, this can be a hard area to control, especially with younger children because they touch the desktop constantly.

kids at school

Final Word

The list of contagious germs that kids are commonly exposed to is downright scary: hand, foot, and mouth disease, colds, respiratory viruses, strep throat, influenza, head lice, and much more. When you factor in how much work you and your family miss due to illness (either taking care of a sick child or coming down sick yourself), it’s easy to get on board with washing hands and disinfecting surfaces.

What do you do to help cut down on the spread of germs during the school year?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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