Your Back-to-School Germ Survival Guide

Your Back-to-School Germ Survival Guide

It’s back to school time! Did you know that according to, the average American child has six to 10 colds a year? In fact, children’s colds cause more doctor visits and missed school days than any other illness. Combined, they lose nearly 22 million school days from the common cold alone. This can also, of course, lead to parents and caregivers missing time from work to stay home with the sick child.

“Children gathering in schools is one of the main ways germs circulate in communities,” says Athena P. Kourtis, MD, PhD, MPH, a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World.


Children’s immune systems are less mature than those of adults, so they’re more susceptible to germs. At school, kids are in close contact with each other.

And they tend to have germy habits, such as sticking fingers and objects in their mouths.

Combine these factors, and the conditions are ripe for spreading germs at school. But most illness can be avoided, says Philip Tierno, PhD, author of The Secret Life of Germs. “A few simple measures can go a long way.”

In this article we will share some of the best tips to help protect your child from germs and illness throughout the school year.

Get Immunized:

“Prevention is the best medicine,” Tierno says. Make sure your child is up to date on scheduled immunizations and that everyone in the family has gotten a seasonal flu vaccine. In 2010, the CDC began recommending flu vaccination for everyone over six months old. If you miss the vaccine in fall, winter or even spring is not too late. Peak flu season is usually not until February and you can get vaccinated as late as May.

Use Hand Sanitizer:

Provide them with hand sanitizer which can be used for those times when they’re unable to wash their hands, but make sure they know it’s still always best when possible for them to wash their hands properly with water and soap.

Proper Hand Washing:

Make sure your children know when and how to properly wash their hands. Obviously, it would be ideal for them to wash their hands several times throughout the day though this may not work well with their schedule. They should at least wash hands before eating, after using the bathroom, and before touching their eyes, mouth, or nose.

Make sure your child knows to use soap and warm water. He should scrub all over — including the back of his hands, between fingers, and around nails — for about 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice. Then rinse well in warm water, dry with a paper towel, and use the towel to turn off the water.

One of the most common ways children get colds is by rubbing their nose or eyes after cold virus germs have gotten on their hands. And children often don’t wash their hands often enough or well enough at school. In one study of middle and high school students, about half washed their hands after using the bathroom — and only 33% of the girls and 8% of the boys used soap

Proper Germ Etiquette:

As much as possible, children should avoid getting too close to other children who are coughing and/or sneezing. Also, make sure your child knows to cover their own coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the crook of their elbow, not their hands.

Use Their Own Supplies:

Make sure your child has their own pencils, pens, erasers, crayons, etc. so that they aren’t sharing them and passing germs back and forth with other kids. Also, if they use mechanical pencils, they don’t need to be sharpened, which avoids having to use a classroom sharpener which is a potential germ hotspot.

Make Sure They Have What They Need:

If you have a baby in daycare, make sure they have their own blankets, toys, spit up cloths, extra clothes, diapers, etc. And limit the need for using communal daycare supplies as much as possible.

Use Cubby Or Hanger At Daycare:

Make sure they have their own cubby, or separate hanging space at daycare. Make sure their things can be separate without touching other kids things, especially jackets. This will not only help prevent germs, but also things such as head lice. Make sure they know not to share hats, brushes, scrunchies, or anything else related to hair.

Don’t Share At School:

It’s simple to remember what is OK to share at school: “Nothing,” Tierno says.

Beyond sticking to their own food and drinks, “Children should avoid sharing lipstick or lip balm,” Kourtis says. “They should also use their own face makeup, razors, creams, and lotions to avoid skin infections, including MRSA and herpes.” Items such as ear buds, locker-room towels, sports jerseys and helmets, and baseball gloves should also be off-limits for sharing.

With younger children, it may be difficult to avoid sharing books and toys in the classroom. Then it’s best to remind your child to wash their hands afterward and avoid touching their eyes, mouth, or nose until they do.

Be Aware Of Germ Hotspots:

A 2005 study of germs in schools found that classroom water fountain spigots and plastic cafeteria trays were the germiest spots in school. The spigot had 2,700,000 and the tray 33,800 bacteria per square inch, compared with 3,200 on the restroom toilet seat. This is most likely because toilet seats get cleaned regularly, while trays and water fountains may not be.

Tierno advocates teaching children not to put their mouths on spigots when they get a drink of water. Another strategy is to send your child to school with his own water, if school policy permits it. Some schools actually encourage children to bring their own water.

As far as cafeteria tray are concerned, they shouldn’t eat anything that has dropped on the tray, and if they have hand sanitizer, they should use it on their hands after carrying the tray, before eating.

Make Sure Daycare Is Clean:

When picking a daycare, make sure it’s clean. When taking a tour, notice if toys, climbing equipment, rooms, chairs, etc. seem to be clean and in good repair. And if your child is already in daycare, don’t be shy about bringing up any possible concerns you may have. You are paying for this service after all.

Keep Backpacks Clean:

Backpacks should be cleaned out regularly. Especially make sure no food, smelly gym clothes, etc. has been forgotten and left in there. They should also occasionally wipe down the inside of their bags with a wet cloth or sanitary wipe.

Also, when possible they should hang their backpacks up on a hook when using the bathroom. About 25% of women’s purses have fecal material on them because they put them on the floor in public restrooms.

Build Immunity:

Help protect your child from inside as well as out. Make sure that they get enough sleep and exercise, avoid stress, and has a well-balanced diet. Pack a healthy lunch and snacks. Encourage them to drink water at school to help keep their immune system strong.


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