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The Real Deal on Germs


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Jeannette Moninger
Redbook Magazine Logo
Relax - there are sane ways to protect your kids from bad bugs.


You've always followed the smart woman's anti-germ playbook: regular hand washing, once-a-day kitchen counter wiping, and the like. But become a mom, and suddenly the basic precautions feel wildly inadequate. You find yourself stocking up on antibacterial wipes, obsessively scrubbing under your nails, and scrutinizing your friends' personal hygiene habits. But you may be going too far: The vast majority of germs are harmless; experts even say they can be helpful. "Exposure to germs is what teaches young immune systems to fend off bad bugs and mature into efficient germ fighters," says Robert Frenck Jr., M.D., a pediatric infectious disease expert at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Keep reading to discover which germ-fighting tactics are time well spent and which ones aren't worth the worry.

GERMOPHOBE RULE #1: Hands off the baby -- unless you've scrubbed up like McDreamy.

REALITY CHECK: Certainly, you should ask people to wash their hands before handling your newborn, since her immature immune system is highly susceptible to colds and infections. But there's no need to make everyone go through total decontamination. "Newborns receive antibodies from their mothers in utero, so they're partially protected from viruses and bacteria at birth," says Harley Rotbart, M.D., author of Germ Proof Your Kids. Once she's 6 months old and has received some vaccinations, she'll make her own antibodies and be less susceptible to illness, so hand washing before holding is no longer necessary.

GERMOPHOBE RULE #2: Public sandboxes are completely off-limits.

REALITY CHECK: Kids may see the playground sandbox as their own private beach, but cats and other critters consider it a public litter box. Although the risk is small, if your child sticks his fingers into his mouth after playing in sand soiled with animal feces, he could get sick with parasites like roundworms, which can lead to fever and stomach pains; or hookworms, which result in painful skin infections and diarrhea. Be sure to wipe his hands with a wet alcohol towelette when he's finished playing, and then wash them again with soap and water when you get home to remove lingering traces of dirt.

GERMOPHOBE RULE #3: No doggy kisses allowed.

REALITY CHECK: Unless your child has an open wound that's at risk for infection from germs in the dog's saliva, a canine smooch typically isn't cause for concern, says Frenck. Still, it's best to have your child wash up after he's been slobbered on by any animal -- if the dog is unknowingly infected with parasites, they can be found inside its mouth. Besides, you can't be sure what Fido last licked.

GERMOPHOBE RULE #4: Leftover food and formula go straight into the trash.

REALITY CHECK: Save that leftover baby food -- but only if your child's spoon wasn't dipped directly into the jar. While she probably won't get sick if you double dip later, digestive enzymes from her saliva can break down food and cause it to spoil more quickly (and it's not always easy to tell when mashed peas and beef have gone bad). Your safest bet is to pour what you need into a bowl and then serve it. With formula and breast milk, leftovers are safe as long as the same child is consuming them, and the formula hasn't been at room temperature for more than two hours (breast milk, which is loaded with antibodies, can sit out for up to 10 hours).

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