Sept. 6, 2005 -- Diligent use of hand-sanitizing gels may help stop the spread of germs and illness among families with small children.
A new study shows that families who used alcohol-based gels had a 59% lower rate of gastrointestinal illnesses (GI) caused by germs spread from one family member to another. Gastrointestinal illnesses cause symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.
In the study, some families were randomly assigned to use alcohol-based gels and were provided with hand-hygiene educational materials. The comparison group only received the educational materials.
"This is the first randomized trial to show that hand sanitizer reduces the spread of germs in the home," says researcher Thomas J. Sandora, MD, of Children's Hospital Boston, in a news release.
The study did not show a significant decrease in the number of respiratory infections in families that used the alcohol-based gels.
"We think that's probably because people were more diligent about using the sanitizer after a GI-related incident, such as using the bathroom or vomiting, than after a respiratory incident, such as nose-wiping or sneezing," says Sandora.
Hand Sanitizers Fight Stomach Bugs
In the study, researchers recruited nearly 300 families who were not already using hand sanitizers. Each family had at least one child aged 6 months to 5 years enrolled in day care.
Half of the families were randomly given hand sanitizer and educational materials on hand hygiene. They were told to put bottles of the gel around the house, such as in the bathroom, kitchen, and baby's room, and to use the hand sanitizer after using the toilet, before preparing food, and after diaper changes.
The comparison families received only nutritional information and were told not to use a hand sanitizer.
Researchers followed the families for five months and tracked rates of hand washing, use of hand sanitizers, and whether anyone in the household had developed a respiratory or GI infection and if the illness had spread within the family.
The results, which appear in the current issue of Pediatrics, show that both groups of families reported similar rates of hand washing.
But the families given hand sanitizer had a 59% lower rate of gastrointestinal illness spread from one family member to another. This held true even after adjusting for other factors that increase the spread of such infections, such as the number of young children in the household.
The rates of respiratory illness were similar in both families.
Day Care Infections
Researchers say that children enrolled in day care are at high risk for respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, which they can transmit to other household members.
Washing hands frequently with soap and water is effective at stopping the spread of infection, but alcohol-based hand sanitizers that do not require water may be a convenient alternative for parents who cannot get to a sink when caring for sick children.