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Germ Warfare: How to Keep Your Kids Healthy

'Tis the season for colds, flu, and strep. Battle the nasty bugs and win with these smart, simple tips.

By Winnie Yu

Living with Germs

Germs are everywhere, all of the time. During the warmer months we generally coexist peacefully with these microscopic organisms. (The hot sun helps kill germs.) But winter is another story. "Cold and flu viruses thrive in nasty weather," says Neil Schachter, M.D., professor of pulmonary medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu (Collins). "Dropping temperatures also cause people to spend more time indoors with windows closed. This allows viruses and bacteria to build up."

Touching a contaminated object and then rubbing your nose or eyes is typically how you catch a cold. These viruses can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours. The flu, on the other hand, is transmitted by droplets of a sick person's sneeze or cough.

In addition, trillions of bacteria are all around you. Most are good bacteria. But some can make people very sick, with respiratory, strep, staph, and other infections. The good news is it doesn't take a lot of effort to steer clear of germs. Here's how.

The Hot Spots Kitchen Sink & Counter

Believe it or not, the kitchen harbors more germs than your bathroom.

Bug-proof plan: Clean all surfaces, including faucet, with a disinfectant. Unlike antibacterial cleaners, disinfectants kill viruses as well as bacteria. Microwave the cleaning sponge for two minutes between each use.

Refrigerator

"The door handle on the fridge is one of the most germ-ridden surfaces in the home," says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., professor at the University of Arizona.

Bug-proof plan: Wipe the handle daily with a spray disinfectant and give your fridge a thorough cleaning inside and out every three months.

Cutting Boards

Raw meat and produce can leave behind bacteria like E. coli and salmonella on food prep surfaces.

Bug-proof plan: Buy two different colored plastic boards. Use one for meat, the other for fruit and veggies. Wash with dish soap every time you cut something new, and toss the cutting boards in whenever you run the dishwasher.

Towels

"Bacteria can live on damp towels for seven days," says Gerba.

Bug-proof plan: Change hand towels every day. Switch over to paper towels anytime someone in the house is sick. Never share bath towels, and allow them to dry completely before reusing.

Bathroom Sink and Tub

Twenty-six percent of tubs contain staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that can cause minor skin problems or serious illnesses, like pneumonia.

Bug-proof plan: Clean the sink and tub weekly with a bleach-based bath and tile cleaning product. Make sure bathrooms are ventilated so surfaces dry completely between uses.

Toilet

The fecal bacteria in toilets can become airborne when you flush. Handles are contaminated with a variety of germs from dirty hands.

Bug-proof plan: Always close the lid before you flush. Give the inside and outside of the toilet bowl a weekly cleaning with a disinfectant that contains bleach.

Surprising Cootie Culprits

Public bathrooms are cleaned fairly often, so while you're wise to use your hip to push open stall doors and paper towels to manage handles and knobs, you're more likely to pick up the sniffles from other places in your daily travels. Pull out your handy antibacterial wipes when you're:

At the grocery store: How often do you think shopping cart handles are cleaned? Now try to imagine the number of people who use them each day while they are handling produce and packages of raw meat.

Using cashier pens: Pens provided to sign credit card purchases are "superb carriers of cold viruses," Dr. Schachter says, as are pens in doctors' offices and at the bank, and those offered by delivery people—so carry your own!

At the ATM and in the elevator: Press all buttons with a finger or knuckle that you're unlikely to use to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Better yet, use a key on your key ring or a pen from your bag.

Washing your hands: Unless the liquid hand soap in the public bathroom is in its own sealed bag (chances are it isn't), it's likely a breeding fiesta for bacteria. Rinse well with warm water and use your own hand sanitizer.

Hard (Cold) Facts Why Can't They Cure the Common Cold?

The problem is there are hundreds of different cold viruses out there, and they are constantly changing. So while you can be vaccinated against the current strain of the flu, you'd have to line up and get about 200 or more anti-cold shots.

Kiss and Tell

Pushing an elevator button is more likely to make you sick than kissing your under-the-weather husband. Why? If someone sneezes into his hand before hitting the button, the virus-ridden fluid from his nose awaits you. Saliva, however, contains little, if any, cold virus, explains Dr. Schachter.

Keep Your Distance

Avoid close contact with people who have the flu, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Droplets in sneezes and coughs can travel up to 6 feet.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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