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Wash Your Hands: The Dirtiest Places Kids Will Find

Toothbrush Holder

The toothbrush holder was named the third-germiest spot in the home in a 2011 study. Flushing a toilet that's near a toothbrush holder exposes it to a plume of contaminated water droplets. To clean, run it through the dishwasher's high-temperature cycle or wash weekly in hot water and follow with a disinfecting wipe.

Pet Areas

Pets and kids are natural buddies. But pets can transmit bacteria, viruses, and parasites to kids through their waste, saliva, or dander. Pet toys and bowls can be a source of coliform -- a family of bacteria that includes salmonella and E. coli. Kids should always wash their hands after touching pets or pet toys, dishes, or food. And, yes, avoid pet kisses.

Backyards

Exposure to bacteria in dirt is good for kids, experts say. But beware of some hazards. Don't let kids play in a yard with animal droppings. Make sure your child's DTaP and Tdap booster vaccines are up to date so any cuts or scrapes are protected from tetanus.

Refrigerators

Open condiments, a leaky meat package, spoiled milk -- plenty of nasty things can await kids in the refrigerator. Salmonella, campylobacter, and norovirus, which can cause upset stomach and diarrhea, are common kitchen bacteria and viruses. To avoid contamination, properly store food that goes bad easily. Wash and disinfect refrigerator walls and shelves.

Animal Environments

Petting zoos, educational farms, and school exhibits where kids can get close to animals are great places to learn. They’re also places for bacteria to spread. Young children are especially at risk. Kids should never take food, drinks, baby bottles, pacifiers, or toys into animal areas. They should wash their hands after touching animals, too.

Floors

With food spills, grease, and human and pet traffic, kitchen floors can be filthy places to play. But other floors can be dirty, too. Carpet and hard floors may be covered in dust mites, mold, food particles, outside dirt, and even bits of insects. These can trigger allergies and asthma attacks. Fungi that cause athlete's foot and ringworm also can lurk.

Standing Water

A pool of standing water is a tempting place to play -- whether it's a pond, a bucket of rainwater under a leaky roof, or a puddle in a tire swing after a storm. It's also a breeding ground for mold, mildew, bacteria, and insects such as mosquitoes, which can transmit West Nile virus and other diseases.

Germs at School

A 2006 study in two Michigan schools found about 800 times more germs on classroom water fountains than on toilet seats. Plastic cafeteria trays were another hot spot. But another study found that grade-schoolers’ absences for illness were cut in half when children used hand sanitizers and when areas such as desktops were disinfected daily.

In the Coatroom

Children in school or day care are the most common carriers of head lice in the U.S. -- usually through head-to-head contact. Less often, head lice are spread through sharing hats, combs, brushes, or clothing. As a precaution, some schools assign cloakroom hooks and cubbies and have children store hats in their coat pockets or sleeves.

Play Spots and Gyms

Schools and day care centers, especially those with sports or playground facilities and equipment, are hot spots for the spread of bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Staph bacteria enter the body through uncovered cuts and open wounds. Sharing towels and playing contact sports such as wrestling are other ways it spreads.

Sandboxes

Turns out the sandbox at your local park holds more than just sand. A 2010 study found sandboxes have the highest level of bacteria in the playground -- 7,440 per inch. These bacteria come from animals (like cats and raccoons) as well as human saliva, hands, food, and diapers. Not all germs are harmful, of course, but where there are a lot of bacteria, it's likely that some are.

Shopping Malls

It's no surprise that all sorts of germs await kids at indoor malls, especially during cold and flu season. What are some of the trouble spots? Studies show escalator rails, elevator buttons, video game controllers (such as at movie theaters and arcades), and ATMs as germ hot spots because they are not cleaned regularly. Washing hands can help, but scrub thoroughly: Public restroom sinks and faucets carry lots of germs, too.

Kids Are Germ Vacuums

Common kid behaviors invite germs: picking their noses, biting their nails, or wiping runny noses with their hands, for example. And most kids don't wash their hands as often or as well as they should. Since hand-washing is the first line of defense against the cold, flu, and other contagious illnesses, remind children how and when to do it.

How to Wash Your Hands

Encourage hand-washing before handling food, after using the bathroom, and after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose. Teach children to use warm water and work up a good soapy lather. Scrub for about 20 seconds, rubbing between fingers, under nails, and over the backs of hands. Hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol are a good alternative, but they don't remove visible dirt and can be toxic if swallowed by children. So use soap and water when available.

Clean or Disinfect?

Cleaning countertops, floors, and other household surfaces with plain old soap and water can reduce visible dirt and germs. But disinfecting those surfaces with bleach or hydrogen peroxide solutions, for example, destroys germs. Most disinfectants work best when they can sit on a surface for at least a minute. You can buy commercial solutions or make them at home. Use no more than 1 cup of bleach mixed in 1 gallon of water water to kill many household germs. Rinse surface after using and let air dry.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 05, 2011

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