9 Seriously Germy Places—And How to Protect Your Child

Playgrounds, restaurant high chairs, and petting zoos can all be seriously icky zones. Here's how to protect your child from nine germ-infested hotspots.

There's no escaping from germs and bacteria—some of which can get your child sick. Follow these guidelines to protect your little one in germ-infested hotspots.

The Playground

Your local jungle gym is more germ-infested than a public bathroom, according to one study. Why? "Restrooms tend to get disinfected often," says researcher Kelly Reynolds, PhD, associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, in Tucson. "But playground equipment almost never gets cleaned."

Harmful germs—such as those in the mucus that kids wipe from their noses—can linger for days. Sandboxes are gross, too: Squirrels and birds can leave behind fecal matter, which may cause stomach illnesses and skin infections in young kids.

Staying safe at the playground

Tempted to clean ladders and handles with a disinfecting wipe? Don't bother. It's practically impossible to get rid of all the germs. Instead, teach your child not to touch her mouth, nose, or eyes when she's at the playground, and clean her hands with an alcohol-based hand gel before you leave the park. And if you have a backyard sandbox, keep it covered when you're not using it.

Ball Pits

Enclosed play areas containing plastic balls, which are popular at kids' gyms and fast-food restaurants, are among the dirtiest places to let your child roam. In fact, researchers at the University of North Georgia found 31 types of bacteria in the ball pits of six physical-therapy clinics. "Kids with leaky diapers play in them, and the pits rarely get cleaned," says Dr. Reynolds. A child's feces can contain E. coli, rotavirus, and salmonella, all of which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. Young children can also pass germs onto the balls with their hands and feet.

Staying safe in ball pits

Although ball pits may seem to have a high risk factor, they’re actually low risk for kids, says Adam Ratner, M.D., director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases in Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. “Your child can come into contact with these bacteria anywhere,” says Dr. Ratner. Those like Streptococcus oralis and Staphylococcus hominis may sound scary, but they’re not just crawling in ball pits; they also live on virtually every kid’s skin and tongue.

Unless your child has skin lesions or a compromised immune system, playing in a germy ball pit shouldn’t put them at any higher risk for infections. However, do keep in mind that cleaning standards and schedules vary widely from one pit to another. Ask when the balls were last sanitized. If the attendant doesn’t know (or you smell something funky), it’s best to stay out. As always, common-sense precautions apply: Your kid should wash their hands before and after they jump in, and you should make sure they're up to date on their vaccinations.

Petting Zoos

Petting zoos have been linked to major E. coli outbreaks in recent years. It's not hard to see why: Farm animals aren't choosy about where they lie down, and traces of feces from an animal's fur or saliva could easily get onto your child's hands—and (yuck!) into their mouth.

Staying safe at petting zoos

Don't take a child younger than age 3 to a petting zoo (or, if you do, let them look but not touch). "No matter how much you warn her not to, a young child is likely to put her fingers in her mouth," says Andrew Nowalk, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Even older kids need reminders not to touch their mouths after petting. Be sure to use an alcohol-based hand gel when they're done.

Water Fountains

A typical drinking fountain contains more harmful germs than a public toilet seat, according to a recent study at elementary schools by NSF International, a nonprofit health and safety organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kids tend to touch the spigot with their fingers or their mouth, passing on germs to the next person who drinks. Cold and flu viruses can live on the metal for up to five hours.

Staying safe with drinking fountains

Teach your child to keep their lips (and fingers) off the spigot and let the water run for a few seconds before sipping. "That helps wash away harmful organisms," says Robert Donofrio, director of the microbiology lab at NSF International. Or take along a separate water bottle—just make sure they're the only one who drinks from it.

Shopping Cart Handles

Supermarket workers and shoppers are constantly touching cart handles and spreading germs. If the blood from raw meat reaches a handle, your child could ingest harmful bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter

Staying safe while grocery shopping

Clean the handle with a disinfecting wipe before putting your child in the cart. If you buy a shopping-cart cover, keep in mind that these can also carry germs (which survive longer in fabric than on a plastic handle), so you should wash them regularly.

Children's Museums

Those buttons your child presses to activate electronic exhibits have been pushed by dozens of other little hands, making them major bug conductors. And elevator and vending-machine buttons are just as germy.

Staying safe at children’s museums

Tell your child not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth at a children's museum. You don't have to spoil their fun by keeping them away from the interactive exhibits, but make sure they wash their hands or uses a hand cleanser afterward.

Public High Chairs

A restaurant may be kid-friendly, but that doesn't mean it's germ-proof. Chances are the chair you plop your toddler into hasn't been cleaned since the last child used it. Your home high chair may not be so clean either: Germs commonly fester in corners and crannies you can't reach.

Staying safe at restaurants

Bring a disposable high-chair cover to restaurants, or use a disinfecting wipe to clean the high chair before putting your child in the seat. Wipe down your child's home high chair after every meal with disinfecting spray and a paper towel (the sponge you use to clean dishes or wipe counters could contain harmful germs). Also consider getting a model made with antimicrobial plastic, which does some of the germ-killing for you.

Computer Keyboards

There are more germs on school computer keyboards than on doorknobs, according to the NSF study. That's because door handles are polished daily; keyboards are rarely (if ever) cleaned.

Staying safe while using computers

Teach your child to sneeze into the crook of their arm and to blow their nose with a tissue, so they're less likely to spread germs to keyboards and computer mice. At home, have them wash their hands before and after using the computer. Wipe the keyboard with a disinfectant cloth once a week—and whenever someone with a cold uses it.

Your Pediatrician's Waiting Room

Don't be fooled by the antiseptic smell. With all the sick little patients (especially during cold and flu season), the doctor’s waiting room is a virtual petri dish. Then there's your busy doctor: If they forget to wash their hands after seeing each patient, they could transmit viruses to your child.

Staying Safe at the Doctor’s Office

Have your child wash their hands before going to the doctor so they'll be less likely to pass along a bug to other kids. If they're just getting a checkup, ask whether there's a well-child waiting area (where the germ load is probably a lot lower). Take along your own toys and books so they aren't tempted to play with communal ones.

"The last thing you want is for your healthy child to contract an illness at the doctor's office," Dr. Nowalk. It's also perfectly acceptable to ask the doctor and the nurse whether they've washed their hands before they touch your child. "It's smart, not rude," says Dr. Nowalk. "I wish parents asked me more often."

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