Help Prevent the Spread of Germs

There’s certainly no end to the places our kids can pick up hidden germs. And try as we might to sanitize and disinfect, they always manage to bring new germs home.

“It’s amazing how many of us sanitize our hands throughout the day but forget to clean our devices regularly,” said Tracy Nailor, MD, MPH, a Pediatric Urgent Care Physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta  “Our children use our cellphones, tablets and laptops, which carry an astonishingly high number of germs on their surfaces and effectively negate great hand hygiene.”

To help keep your kids free of cold, the flu and other nasty infections, keep an eye out for these lesser-known germ hot spots.

1. Backpacks and lunch boxes

Homework and empty Tupperware containers aren’t the only things making it back in your child’s book bags and lunch boxes at the end of the school day. Book bags and lunch boxes can pick up germs from all sorts of places. And these invisible bugs can cause colds, the flu and other bacterial and viral infections. Lunch boxes hold germs on the inside, too. Reusable cloth lunch bags and hard insulated lunch boxes can harbor nasty bacteria like E. coli and salmonella thanks to improper food storage techniques and lack of cleaning. Another bacteria magnet? Lunch boxes left in hot cars.

Tips for cleaning backpacks and lunch boxes:

  • For backpacks, empty the bag of any food crumbs, old papers or other items, and wipe down both the inside and outside with hot, soapy water or a cleaning wipe.
  • For insulated lunch boxes, try and wash out after every use, but at least once a week with hot, soapy water, letting it dry completely afterward. Make sure to wipe down the outside as well.
  • For cloth lunch bags, washing in hot, soapy water or the washing machine will kill most germs and bacteria.

To prevent any type of food-borne illness, make sure all food in the lunch box is safe to potentially be stored at room temperature for more than two hours—most leftovers and cold cuts aren’t.

Pack foods that need to remain hot in insulted thermoses or containers. Foods that need to be kept cold should be packed with an ice pack. And cloth lunch bags should only be packed with nonperishable foods, unless they’re going to be eaten immediately.

2. Pet toys and food bowls

If your kid loves playing fetch with the family pet, be aware that they’re also susceptible to all the germs that can collect on Fido’s toys, as well as his food and water bowls. This may include yeast, mold, mildew and Staphylococcus (Staph), a bacteria responsible for a variety of skin diseases.

According to a study conducted by the National Sanitation Foundation, pet bowls were the fourth most germ-filled spots in our homes, containing illness-inducing bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.

How to clean pet toys and food and water bowls:

  • For hard pet toys, clean and sanitize with hot, soapy water and disinfect with a mild bleach solution. Soft toys should be washed in a sanitizing washer and dryer on a monthly or as-needed basis.
  • For food and water bowls, it’s recommended to wash these with hot, soapy water or place in a sanitizing dishwasher. If you’re hand washing the bowls, mix a cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water and let them soak. Try and clean your pet’s food and water bowls at least once a week.

3. Sports equipment and mats

Tossed on locker room floors. Covered in sweat. Our kids’ sporting mats, bags and equipment are covered in more germs than you might think, and some can cause serious illness. Soft gym mats, locker rooms and shared showers can contain athlete’s foot and ringworm fungus. They can also harbor the virus that causes plantar warts, as well as Staph and cold and flu bugs. Sweaty gym clothes left in gym bags also become breeding grounds for both mold and fungus if they aren’t cleaned.

Cleaning sports equipment:

  • Make sure your child has shower shoes to wear and help him avoid walking with bare feet in shared changing and shower areas. Make sure he also has a fresh change of clothes.
  • To clean sports equipment like helmets and pads at home, consider a non-chemical cleaning solution like white vinegar that helps destroy odors and bacteria. You can also use sanitizing cleaning wipes.
  • Clothes, socks and even shoe pads can be washed in a sanitizing washer or dryer.
  • Make sure all clothes, gear and bags dry out completely between uses to help prevent mold and bacteria from growing.

4. Your cellphone or tablet

Parents know all too well how much little hands like to grab glowing screens and stick them straight into their mouths. But according to research, our cellphones and tablets can harbor even more germs than a toilet seat.

That’s not very surprising, since our phones and tablets end up sitting on dirty surfaces, in public restrooms and in cluttered bags.

Best way to clean cellphones and tablets:

  • Mix a 1:1 ratio of rubbing alcohol and distilled water into a spray bottle and spritz it onto a microfiber cloth (not directly on the screen). This solution is less abrasive to your mobile devices than an antibacterial wipe, which can damage your phone and corrode the protective coating on the screen.

This should only be done once a week. Cleaning more often with the alcohol solution can damage your phone over time.

5. The car seat

Cheerios. Toys. Socks. A few bodily mishaps. When we think about the clutter and mess that gets trapped in our children’s car seats, we don’t usually think of the illness-inducing bacteria that can come along with them. But according to one study, we should. Research out of the University of Birmingham in England found that the typical child’s safety seat could be harboring more germs than the toilet seat in your house, including the norovirus, E. coli, salmonella, and cold and flu germs.

How to clean your child’s car seat:

  • First, check out the manufacturer’s instructions for do’s and don’ts for your particular model.
  • Then begin by wiping down the seat with a sanitizing wipe to remove any stuck-on dirt, food, etc. Remove and wipe down or rinse the harness with water and a gentle, nonabrasive cleanser. Next, remove and machine-wash the cloth cover in cold water on the gentlest cycle available (hand washing is generally recommended). Let the cover air dry. Do not put in the dryer.
  • Remove the buckle from the car seat and wipe down, letting it dry completely. Test the buckle after you reinstall it to make sure it’s still fastening correctly and effectively.

Experts recommend not washing the child’s harness in the washing machine or submerging the straps in water because it may compromise their effectiveness in the event of a crash. Bleach should not be used to clean car seats, as it can wash away protective flame retardant.

Remember, practicing good hand hygiene—even for babies—is the best way to prevent the spread of germs, especially during cold and flu season.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.