Playgrounds, restaurant high chairs, and petting zoos can all be seriously icky germy zones. Here's how to protect your child.

By Sandra Gordon


Germy Zone: 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.

Stay safe: 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.

Germy Zone: 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. "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.

Stay safe: If you decide to visit a pit, tell your child that he must thoroughly wash his hands before and after playing.

Pets & Animals

Germy Zone: Petting Zoos

These 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 her mouth.

Stay safe: Don't take a child younger than age 3 to a petting zoo (or, if you do, let her 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 -- and to use an alcohol-based hand gel when they're done.

Germy Zone: Pets

An affectionate lick from the family cat or dog isn't likely to make your child sick. But pets can transmit harmful bacteria from feces on their fur and paws.

Stay safe: If your child touches your pet before eating, make sure he washes his hands. Give your dog a bath at least once a week. And disinfect your home's entryway regularly, since that's where most germs from a pet's paws collect.

Handles, Buttons & High Chairs

Germy Zone: 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.

Stay safe: Teach your child to keep his lips (and fingers) off the spigot and to 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 he's the only one who drinks from it.

Germy Zone: Shopping-Cart Handles

Supermarket workers and shoppers are constantly touching these 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.

Stay safe: 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.

Germy Zone: 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.

Stay safe: Tell your child not to touch his eyes, nose, or mouth at the museum. You don't have to spoil his fun by keeping him away from the interactive exhibits, but make sure he washes his hands or uses a hand cleanser afterward.

Germy Zone: 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.

Stay safe: Bring a disposable high-chair cover to restaurants, or use a disinfecting wipe to clean the high chair. 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.

Germy Zone: 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.

Stay safe: Teach your child to sneeze into the crook of her arm and to blow her nose with a tissue, so she's less likely to spread germs to keyboards and computer mouses. At home, have her wash her 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.

The Doctor's Office

Germy Zone: 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 waiting room is a virtual petri dish. Then there's your busy doctor: If he forgets to wash his hands after seeing each patient, he could transmit viruses to your child.

Stay safe: Have your child wash her hands before going to the doctor so she'll be less likely to pass along a bug to other kids. If she's 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 she isn'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."

The Dirt on Soap

Although it's increasingly difficult now to find liquid hand soap that isn't antibacterial, a new study shows that these antimicrobial cleansers are no more effective at killing germs than plain old soap and water. The review, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, evaluated the findings of 27 past studies and found that people who washed their hands with soap containing the chemical triclosan didn't have lower levels of bacteria on their skin -- or a reduced likelihood of catching infections such as upper-respiratory illnesses or stomach flu. The review also suggests that antimicrobial cleansers could lead to antibiotic resistance -- but that's just in a lab.

The bottom line: If your family uses antibacterial soap, don't let your kids get away with doing a rush job at the sink. They still need to scrub their hands for at least 20 to 30 seconds -- the length of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice -- to get them clean.

Kid-Friendly Cleaners

Keep these cleaners on hand to kill germs and keep your kids safe.

  • Clorox Anywhere Hard Surface Daily Sanitizing SprayThis all-purpose cleaner kills E. coli, salmonella, staph, strep, and other bacteria. It works on all nonporous surfaces, including high chairs, countertops, and keyboards.
  • Household BleachIt's a highly effective germ-killer, a great value, and -- despite the strong smell -- kid-safe and environmentally friendly. Use bleach to disinfect diaper pails, toilet bowls, trash cans, and faucets.
  • Lysol To Go Disinfectant SprayThis portable cleanser kills viruses such as rhinovirus (a leading cause of the common cold) and respiratory syncytial virus. Use it on doorknobs, toilets, and public changing tables.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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