If humans ever formally declare war against germs, Nichole Titley could be a field general. During cold and flu season, the elementary school art teacher from Bethlehem, Connecticut, carries a spray bottle of diluted bleach with her to the grocery store. She'll spray and wipe the outside of a box of cookies before it gets anywhere near her 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. "My pediatrician says I should have worked for the health inspection department," she says.
In the other camp, stay-at-home mother of five Yvonne Mihailoff of Flint, Michigan, lets the germs fall where they may. "I'm pretty laid-back about the whole thing," she says. She's not strict about hand washing and doesn't expect any awards for housekeeping. "My baby crawls around on the floor and chews on what happens to be there."
The truth is that germs are both friend and foe. Many of the microscopic organisms we call "germs" (bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi) are either harmless or good for keeping our bodies working smoothly. And a theory called the hygiene hypothesis suggests that some exposure to germs can reduce a child's risk of developing asthma and allergies.
But germs can also bring coldsm flu, and food poisoning, which don't make kids any healthier or their immune system any stronger. In short: the fewer illnesses, the better.
So what might be your best strategy in the fight against germs? Most people develop an approach that's part science, part preference. To help you settle on yours, we asked experts and moms for their answers to five of parents' most pressing germ questions. Here are their battle tactics.
Shopping carts: A risky ride?
These days, grocery stores acknowledge that some people feel squeamish about germs on shopping cart handles — antiseptic wipe dispensers are becoming a fixture at stores. But not all parents take advantage of them. "I never use the wipes," says Carolyn McCarthy, a mother of one from Decatur, Georgia, with another on the way. "We grew up riding around in shopping carts, and we did fine."
For other parents, a mere wipe isn't enough. In addition to her bleach bottle, Connecticut mom Titley brings her own cloth cart cover to keep the handle under wraps.
Shopping cart handles really can be coated in germs, says Elizabeth Scott, a professor of biology at Simmons University in Boston and founder of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community. "Then again, germs are absolutely everywhere." She says moms and dads could give grocery cart handles a quick wipe, but "it wouldn't be a huge concern of mine."
Allison Aiello, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, agrees that shopping cart handles don't pose any special health threat, at least no more than doorknobs, telephones, and the other germ-covered items in our lives.
When shopping for groceries, you should pay attention to your hands, not the handles, Scott says. "If I get a little chicken juice on my hands, I'll ask the clerk for a wipe," she says. Food-borne bacteria lurking on raw meat or fish pose a bigger threat than any other germs you're likely to run across in the store, she says.
Bottom line: Wiping down the shopping cart can only help, but it's a corner you can cut without guilt. The real danger in the store is raw meat and fish — so wash well after touching them.
The five-second rule: Does it really count?
"I'm not upset if my daughter eats something off the floor at home," says Cheryl Lutz, a reading teacher and mother of a 3-year-old on Long Island, New York. "But if something falls at the mall, I don't want it in her mouth." Even germ-conscious Titley says she'll let her daughter eat off the floor at home, "because I know it's clean."
In 2003, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign put the five-second rule to a scientific test by placing gummy bears on cultures of Escherichia coli bacteria. They found that the sticky candies became germ-ridden in fewer than five seconds. The researchers also checked for bacteria on heavily trafficked floors on campus. Surprisingly, the floors turned out to be almost free of germs. The conclusion: If you eat a dropped gummy bear, you probably won't get sick — unless it happened to fall in a Petri dish.
Most floors are too dry to be especially germy, public health expert Aiello says. Still, she doesn't encourage frequent floor grazing: "It's better to err on the side of caution, especially if the floor is moist." If a grape falls into a splatter of raw meat juice, even one second is far too long, she says.
Bottom line: It's all about where it lands — and clean, dry floors are fair game.
Public restrooms: Germ Central Station?
But toilet seats aren't nearly as dangerous as many parents fear, says biology professor Scott. The germs that lurk on the seat probably won't make a kid sick. "What children get on their butts really doesn't matter," says Scott. After all, the bottom is a long way from a child's nose, mouth, or eyes, the favorite entryways of germs.
Hands are the main mode of transport, and therefore are the real concern. "It's very important that children clean their hands when they leave a restroom," Scott says. Make hand washing a post-potty must, and not just at gas stations, malls, and restaurants. Enforce the rule at home, too. A good, thorough scrub with soap and water should take 20 seconds.
Bottom line: A yucky bug isn't a threat when it's on your child's rear. A good hand washing is far more important than avoiding the toilet seat.
Hand sanitizers: Necessity or overkill?
Epidemiologist Aiello says sanitizing gels can be a great defense against germs. "It's really important to clean your hands at all critical points: before eating, after petting an animal, and after using the bathroom." If there's no sink around, she says, hand sanitizers are an excellent alternative.
But you have to do it right: Get a good, healthy pumpful on the hands, and spread the gel around the entire surface, even under the nails. Aiello warns that a gel might not be enough to sanitize hands that are truly dirty, since grimy spots can give germs a place to hide.
It's also important to make sure the product contains at least 60 percent alcohol ("ethanol" or "isopropanol" on the label). That amount or more has been shown to effectively clobber germs, and you don't have to worry about bacteria building up resistance: The gel works just as well the 100th time as the first.
Still, hand sanitizers do have a downside. Frequent use can lead to dry skin, and overuse can cause skin to chap or crack, opening tiny doors to infection.
Bottom line: Alcohol-based gels are a great on-the-go alternative to a sink and soap — when you use a hearty helping of a strong product.
Household cleaners: Which work best?
When it comes to attacking germs at home, choosing the right arsenal of cleansers can be a perplexing task. While plenty of products claim to be antibacterial-this and antiseptic-that, pregnant mom McCarthy is reluctant to use anything harsher than soap and water. "I'm more worried about chemicals and cleaners than bacteria," she says. "You don't have to obliterate every germ out there."
Mother of five Mihailoff usually depends on a wet washcloth to keep her kitchen clean, although she'll occasionally use a tub-and-tile detergent for more serious scrubbing. Titley, mom to a toddler, can sum up her cleaning approach in five words: bleach, and lots of it.
According to biologist Scott, simple soap and water really can be good germ killers — as long as you can take the item to the sink and give it a good scrub. But for countertops and other surfaces, soap and water aren't enough, especially if you're using a rag that's been hanging around in the sink. "If you use a rag on a countertop, you don't remove bacteria, you just spread them around," she says.
Scott recommends using a disinfectant spray for the "critical surfaces" where germs collect, including kitchen counters and the bathroom. You can make your own disinfectant solution by mixing a tablespoon of chlorine bleach with a quart of water. After you spray, wipe it off with a clean rag, sponge, or paper towel, she says. (To give a used sponge a second wind, wet it and stick it in the microwave for two minutes — studies have shown that's enough to blast germs to smithereens.)
A few notes of caution when using chlorine bleach: Never mix it with other cleaners (the combination can create a dangerous gas), store it safely away from the reach of children, and remember that more isn't better — a diluted solution is effective, and straight bleach is overkill.
As for antibacterial soaps, they might give you an added sense of security, but the extra protection is an illusion. Public health expert Aiello and her colleagues published a study in August 2007 showing that antibacterial soaps containing the germ-killing chemical triclosan didn't kill any more germs than regular soaps. To make matters worse, previous studies suggest that triclosan can help bacteria better survive against other germ fighters like antibiotic medications. In other words, antibacterial soaps may actually be doing germs a favor.
Bottom line: Your best bets are a good scrub in the sink with plain soap and hot water, and a disinfectant spray for things you can't haul to the sink.
The BabyCenter 7: Best ways to banish germs
1. Teach your children to wash their hands at these key times: after going to the bathroom, petting an animal, or playing outside, and before eating.
2. Do hand washing right: With soap and water, it takes 20 seconds of scrubbing to kill the germs that need to be killed.
3. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer with you for visits to playgrounds, mall food courts, and other places where there might not be a sink handy. Be sure to cover every part of the hand, including under the nails, if possible.
4. After preparing meat or poultry, wash cutting boards with hot, soapy water and spray counter tops with disinfectant. The bacteria commonly found on raw meats — including campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli — are more dangerous than any other germs you're likely to have in the house.
5. Wash small cuts and scrapes with soap and water. Apply an antibacterial ointment, put on a bandage, and change the bandage every day until the wound heals.
6. Make sure your children are up to date on their vaccinations, and consider getting them a flu shot every year. A school-age child who's been vaccinated against the flu is less likely to bring home a bug that can infect the entire family.
7. If someone in your house is sick, take a moment to clean doorknobs, television remotes, toys, and other items your children touch throughout the day.