Dr. Dana Johnson: Hand Washing a Key to Health

Featured in the Wisconsin State Journal on September 18, 2013.

Dear Dr. Johnson: My child seems to get sick every year after a couple weeks of school. Is there anything I can do to prevent this?

Dear Reader: With the start of school, in the pediatrician’s clinic we often begin to see an increase in the number of visits from children who are sick with the common cold and other viruses. Children are again in close contact and sharing all their wonderful germs.

While there is nothing you can do to protect your child or yourself completely from the common cold and other illnesses, there are some steps you and your child can take to help ward them off.

The number one step is good hand washing. This can prevent a child who has just wiped their nose or coughed into their hands from leaving the virus on a toy or a friend’s hand when they next touch it. It can also prevent a child who has picked up a virus from that toy or friend’s hand from introducing it to their body.

The most common ways germs are introduced to the body are when a child touches their eyes, wipes their nose, puts their fingers in their mouth or touches food before they eat it. Children should be taught and encouraged to practice good hand washing whether they are sick or well.

Good washing takes time — roughly 20 seconds, or two rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song. The backs of the hands, between fingers and under nails all should be scrubbed before the soap is rinsed off.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an acceptable substitute when soap and water are not available. It also needs to coat all the surfaces of the hand, not just the palms. Hand sanitizer is not effective against all germs or on visibly dirty hands.

In addition to good hand washing, teach children to cough and sneeze into their elbow or shoulder. This prevents the germs from going onto their hands and subsequently onto anything they touch.

If they don’t cover their cough or sneeze, the germs can go into the air. The germs will then wait for the next lucky child to touch the object they are now on. If a child coughs or sneezes into their hand or a tissue, they should immediately wash their hands before touching anything else.

Ill children should stay home to prevent spreading a virus. While it is not reasonable for all children with the sniffles to stay home, a child who has a fever, significant cough or runny nose or symptoms that would prevent them from fully participating at school should be kept home.

Remember, however, that this alone will not fully prevent the spread of infection. Children are often contagious before they show symptoms of an illness.

To prevent your child from getting the more serious illness of influenza — which can result in prolonged fever, cough, decreased energy and other significant complications — I encourage all children and adults over the age of 6 months to be vaccinated against influenza each year (unless they have medical contraindications). Some children over age 2 can avoid the shot and receive the nasal flu mist instead.

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