On Your Health

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Kids and Germs: The Myths and The Truth

Almost everyone has heard about the “five-second rule.” If you drop food on the ground, you have five seconds to pick it up and eat it without getting sick from bacteria. Another popular saying kids hear growing up is “rub some dirt on it, you’ll be okay” when you fall and scrape your knee. Remember the one about leaving cuts open to promote faster healing — despite the medical advice that bandaging a cut reduces the risk of infection and causes cells to regenerate quicker?

We've all heard myths about germs from our parents, grandmothers or know-it-all friends. While there is some truth to a couple of old wives' tales, improper care and prevention can result in sick kids, big infections and generally poor health. With cold and flu season well on its way, preventing the spread of germs, especially in classrooms and at home, is important, and your children should know proper hygiene techniques, like hand washing.

Read on to separate the myths, the legends and the truth when it comes to kids and germs.

Old wives’ tales — true or false?

Back before medical advances, health care knowledge was often simply passed from generation to generation. Some of that knowledge has merit, but some ideas are still stuck in the dark ages. Luckily, modern medicine has come a long way! 

Green mucus means you need antibiotics - FALSE.

While in the past, the color of mucus was used to determine infection and subsequent antibiotic treatment, that method is no longer used. Besides, a lot of infections that cause discolored phlegm are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work against bacterial infections. Your best bet is to visit your doctor if your child has discolored or foul phlegm.

Feed a cold, starve a fever - FALSE.

No matter what you are sick with, your body needs nutrients and hydration. Eat a healthy diet no matter if you have a fever, a cold, a bump on the head or anything else.

Putting an onion by your bed will draw out the cold or flu – FALSE.

While this enduring myth still has its avid defenders even today, an onion is not able to draw viruses or bacteria out of your body. Onions simply do not create an attractive environment for bacteria and viruses to live, so why would they go there? Your body, on the other hand, is a great place for viruses and bacteria to thrive, which means an onion will not magically “suck out” the flu. So, while it won’t hurt to try the onion by the bed, it won’t cure you of your cold.

The Five-Second Rule - FALSE. 

No matter how fast you pick up food that falls on the floor, you will pick up bacteria with it. However, it is true that the faster you pick it up, the less bacteria it will have! When deciding if you want to eat something that’s been dropped on the floor, remember that something like ice cream dropped on a wet floor or carpet will harbor more bacteria than a cookie dropped on a hard, dry floor. In conclusion, even though some types of bacteria are harmless, and you will pick up less bacteria the quicker you move, when in doubt, throw it out. 

The cold weather causes colds - FALSE. 

Back in the day, many people believed that going outside into the cold weather would cause you to catch a cold. Not true! There’s no such thing as “catching a chill,” although dropping temperatures do create are a friendlier environment for viruses floating through the air, helping them live longer. The real reason people seem to get more sick in winter is because the colder weather forces people inside, and being in enclosed spaces with a contagious person makes it easier for infections to spread from person to person. Additionally, cold, dry air cuts down on your healthy mucus, which leaves airways more susceptible to foreign bacteria and viruses.

Chicken soup can cure a cold – A LITTLE BIT TRUE. 

While “cure” is a strong word, chicken soup can certainly help your body fight off a cold. Chicken broth has tons of magnesium, zinc and calcium, all of which aid your immune system. The broth also helps keep you hydrated when you're sick. So, go ahead and slurp down that soup if you’re not feeling well.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away - FALSE. 

Sure, an apple is nutritious and has a lot of fiber and is definitely a part of a healthy diet, but eating one apple won’t stave off illnesses. Instead, adopt an overall healthy nutrition plan to keep your body strong.

Rubbing whiskey on a baby’s gums helps with teething - FALSE. 

Not only does this not work, but it’s also dangerous. Even a few drops of alcohol can be toxic to infants, yet parents still pass this myth around. Just don’t do it.

child cleaning the floor

The clean truth

Kids are naturally curious, generous and playful, which also makes them prime for carrying and passing along germs. What really works when it comes to keeping your kids healthy and free of sickness? Here are the facts to keep your kids germ-free.

The simplest and best way to keep kids clean is through simple hand washing.

  • Children should always wash their hands after going to the bathroom, playtime, blowing their nose, playing outside or with animals and before eating. 
  • When washing their hands, kids should wash for at least 15 seconds – singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice is a great way to make sure their hands are thoroughly clean.
  • One old wives’ tale doctors do recommend is to have children wash their hands with soap and water if dirt is visible.
  • If you can’t see dirt but know your child has been exposed to an unclean environment, hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol can be used. Remember though, alcohol-based sanitizer is extremely poisonous to your child, even just a few drops, so only use a pea-size amount and make sure your child has it thoroughly rubbed in until it's completely dry. Avoid using sweet-smelling sanitizer, and never let your children lick their hands after application. Finally, keep hand sanitizer away from children and lock it up at home.

Teach children to sneeze or cough into their elbow.

The elbow is much more sanitary than using hands to cover the mouth. If your child is old enough, teach her or him how to blow their nose in a tissue and throw the tissue away immediately after use.

Sharing is good, but not for food.

While sharing toys may be encouraged to help promote socialization, teach your children not to share items like eating utensils, drinking glasses or food. 

Vaccinations are key.

Vaccinations are as important as hand washing. Make sure all your children's vaccinations are up-to-date, so they don’t share communicable diseases like measles or mumps.

Keeping your environment clean is also an important step in killing germs that cause illness.

While cleaning is rarely anyone’s favorite thing to do, a few minutes of cleaning (especially in the bathrooms and kitchen) will save days of misery.  

  • After cooking in the kitchen, be sure to clean all kitchen counters with hot water and disinfect them with bleach or a disinfectant cleaning solution.
  • The sink and other surfaces should also be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected.
  • In the bathroom, be sure to disinfect the toilet, sink, bathtub, baby-changing stations and other surfaces. (If a family member is sick, this is especially important).
  • A true old wives’ tale? You can use a 9-to-1 ratio of bleach to water to kill germs on surfaces.
  • Be sure to dry the disinfected surfaces with a paper towel or cloth to wipe away the last of those germs. 

With an estimated four billion sick days taken in the U.S. each year, following medically sound practices to prevent the spread of germs goes a long way toward helping your child have fewer missed school days, fewer infections, fewer trips to the doctor and lower medical costs.

In fact, the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology just released a podcast called “5-Second Rule” in efforts to help raise awareness for infection prevention and share truthful health information on a wide array of topics. While there’s nothing wrong with fixing a big pot of chicken soup if it makes you feel better, we recommend checking out the podcast, too.