Germs in the Backpack and Lunchbox

Bacteria easily collect in backpacks and school lunchboxes. Try these 10 tips to keep them, and your child, germ-free.

Reviewed by Jonathan L Gelfand, MD on October 18, 2007

Your son or daughter's lunch box may have more in it than that juice box and peanut butter sandwich you packed this morning. Experts tell WebMD that lunch boxes as well as backpacks can harbor germs that cause colds and flu.

Here are 10 tips to keep these school accessories free from unwanted visitors:

Wash it out once a week.
"Many back backs or school bags will come with instructions on washing and should be followed," says Paul Horowitz, MD, the medical director of Pediatric Clinics at Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore. "Disinfecting wipes work really well for nonporous surfaces like lunchboxes."

Don't make lunch while you do the laundry.
It may sound like an easy way to multitask, but doing laundry while making a sandwich is actually an even easier way to get sick, says Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of microbiology at University of Arizona in Tucson. "Try not to make lunch at the same time you are moving laundry from the washer to the dryer because all the brown streaks in underwear go to all your other clothing and can easily get on your hands and find their way into your son or daughters lunch box," he says. "Wash your hands after you do the laundry, too."

Teach your child to wash hands before lunch at school.
It really works. "The No. 1 time to wash your hands and make sure your kids do too is before you eat anything," says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. "Use soap and water and a little elbow grease," he says. "Anti-bacterial soap is a good idea for extra protection." Studies show that "people who wash hands seven times a day have about 40% fewer colds than the average person."

Pack two juice boxes.
"Don't share sips from juice boxes -- especially during cold and flu season" Schachter says. "To make sure your child doesn't do this, pack two." Remember that flu season spans from November through March, while cold season runs from about September until March or April.

Cut up sandwiches and snacks.
Sharing is important and often stressed to children, but sharing food is another story -- especially during cold and flu season. "Don't give people a bite of your apple. If your child likes to share and trade, cut fruit and sandwiches in pieces to make sharing easier and safer," says Schachter.

Pack a healthy lunch.
While there is not a direct correlation between nutrients and immunity, "children who eat poorly and don't take in enough calories have weaker immune systems and are more likely to pick up a cold or flu," Schachter says. Make sure your child's lunch is healthful: Pack fruit, veggie sticks, and protein such as turkey sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly. Avoid filling the lunchbox with empty calories from chips, sweets, crackers, or processed lunchmeats loaded with fat.

Wipe down the eating area.
"If your child eats lunch at his or her desk, wipe it down because desks tend to get pretty germy," says Horowitz. "Pack wipes in his her backpack or lunch box so this can be done as easily as possible."

Hang backpacks in the restroom.
Bathroom floors have invisible fecal matter on them, so teach your children to hang their backpacks on the hook, says Gerba. The same advice goes for purses. "The bottoms of women's purses are pretty bad," Gerba says. "About 25% have fecal bacteria because women put it down on the toilet floor in restrooms."

Pack functional tissues.
The latest trend in tissues is virucidal tissues," says Schachter. "These tissues prevent the spread of viruses around the house because it kills them when you blow your nose." Encourage you child to cover his nose or mouth when sneezing or coughing and after using a tissue, throw it away!

Prepare lunch on clean, disinfected surfaces.
Cracks and crevices in your cutting board provide plenty of space for bacteria to grow. "The average cutting board has about 200% more fecal bacteria than the average toilet seat," Gerba says. "People don't disinfect cutting boards" and they should. "Don't cut up chicken and then salad on the same cutting board without disinfecting it," he stresses. Better yet, "use separate ones for raw meat and making salads."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Charles Gerba, Phd, a professor of microbiology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai in New York City; and the author, The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. Paul Horowitz, MD, medical director, Pediatric Clinics at Legacy Health System, Portland, Ore.

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