The Truth About Germs and Your Child's Health

What really matters when it comes to battling bacteria and decreasing allergy risks.


Myth: Toys shared at day care are to blame for most young children's illnesses.

Reality: "Yes, viruses and bacteria can live on toys," says Dallas pediatrician Suzanne Corrigan, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "But the more common route of infection is through hands that have wiped noses and then touched your child's hands. Good hygiene on the part of child care workers is the best protection for your child." Make sure that caregivers instruct children to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly. Also ensure that toys are regularly cleaned with water and detergent, followed by a disinfectant like Lysol or a dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water).

Myth: You should always use antibacterial soap for hand washing.

Reality: "Some infectious-disease experts fear that overuse of these soaps actually may lead to stronger germs," Corrigan says. "So until we have more evidence, use regular soap. It's the rubbing of the hands that really eliminates germs." Child care workers, grandparents, friends and others who come in contact with your child should wash their hands after changing diapers, using the bathroom, coughing or sneezing; before preparing food or bottles; and at regular intervals throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is to wash for at least as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday to You" twice.

Myth: To head off allergies, you need to keep your home virtually spotless.

Reality: "Your house doesn't have to be immaculate," says Michael Welch, M.D., co-director of the Allergy and Asthma Medical Group and Research Center in San Diego and past chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Allergy and Immunology. "In fact, there is growing data that stimulation of the immune response with some early exposure to germs and allergens is a good thing when it comes to allergies." This means that a few "dust bunnies" won't hurt your child and might even be beneficial. That goes for having a pet in the house as well.

"It looks like pets may have a positive effect on allergy and asthma," adds Welch. "This doesn't mean they will definitely protect against such problems, but having a pet around could mean a mild reduction in the possibility."

The take-home message: "Try not to be overly compulsive," counsels Welch. "Don't worry about buying germ-resistant toys or using special solutions to sterilize your home. But don't go to the other extreme, either."