Coming Clean on Germs

Hand washing is the single most important thing we can do to prevent infectious diseases. And yet, misinformation and poor hygiene habits abound.

Diane Fondriest, MD is a board-certified pediatrician at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.  She completed her training at Children's Memorial Hospital and recently celebrated 25 years of treating children.  Dr. Fondriest clarifies why correct preventive care—and some common sense—is the best medicine. 

Q: For correct hand washing, some say temperature is most important and others say friction or length of time. What is most important?

A: Length of time is important. You may have heard that singing “The Birthday Song” twice is a good way for kids to remember, and I agree with that tip. The song lasts about 15 to 20 seconds, which is the right amount of time.

I also recommend warm water, an antiseptic cleanser and rubbing hands together to reach all of the surfaces. You should dry with an air dryer or paper towel because linens harbor germs. Cloth towels at home are OK—just be sure to isolate towels used by someone who is ill.


Q: Hand sanitizers containing strong anti-bacterial chemicals are cropping up everywhere. Is there any danger to increased use—especially for children with developing immune systems?

A: They’re good products for killing germs and very safe as well. They evaporate rapidly on the skin and have a transient effect. So, they eliminate germs but don’t interfere with immunity or carry long-term effects. And that’s an important point to remember: because sanitizers don’t have a lasting effect, you may need to apply frequently throughout the day.


Q: What’s the best way to develop good hand washing habits in children?

A: The habit should start at home and start young. Children should wash when they come in from outside, after playing, after using the bathroom and after doing any cleaning, especially when it involves animal waste. They should also wash before they eat. This kind of home training should be treated the same as teaching children how to dress, how to behave, or how to treat others.

The American Red Cross’ excellent website,, has fun, interactive ways for kids to learn about germs and keeping clean.


Q: Some experts recommend washing after any contact with animals. How do animal-loving families manage this strict guideline?

A: There is potentially some transfer of infectious germs between animals and people. But I’m a dog lover, and I don’t wash my hands every time I touch my beagle. Use common sense; for example, don’t play with pets if they have a skin irritation. Always wash after cleaning up any animal waste. And remember that everyone in the home needs to wash their hands. Having clean kids and pets won’t matter if parents’ hands are dirty.


Q: Day care centers and schools have the highest concentrations of strong viruses and bacteria. How can kids stay healthy away from home?

A: The best thing to do is to keep a child at home when he or she is sick. Day care centers should have policies and safety protocols in place that parents should learn before enrolling their child. And, of course, be sure to keep hands clean and have children wash hands when they come home from school. Ideally, the hygiene habits you establish at home should be continued at school. But if, for example, an older child can’t wash hands before eating, he or she can always carry a small hand sanitizer in a backpack.


Q: Is there anything else parents can do to protect kids during cold and flu season? What about over-the-counter remedies (such as Airborne or Emergen-C)?

A: Dietary supplements like Airborne may not be worthwhile. They have not been proven to prevent colds and are not FDA-approved. Even basic Vitamin C, which has long been connected with treating the common cold, is now known to have little or no ability to prevent colds or reduce their severity. Good general health habits, including diet, sleep, exercise and correct hand washing, are your best bet.

I also encourage seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccinations, especially for young people between six months and 24 years of age. It’s not too late to get the vaccine, especially since the H1N1 strain may be with us well after flu season has passed.

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