Germaphobes vs. Germophiles: What's Your Family's Germ Policy?
Germs are everywhere. Should we embrace them to help build our own antibodies or eliminate them with antibacterial products?
I’ve never been much of a germaphobe. When my daughters were infants, I did the usual bottle sterilization and kept things clean, but never in a fanatical way. As they grew older, they learned the importance of hand washing and covering their mouths when coughing and sneezing. This has since been amended to “cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow.” I am not a big Purell fan, either. It’s just one more thing to have to think about. Besides, kids need to build some immunity to germs on their own, otherwise they’ll spend their lives trying to dodge the illness bullet.
I do believe in the flu shot. My daughters and I each get one yearly, and my husband does as well, when it’s convenient for him. He doesn’t go out of his way to get immunized. Even so, I would say each member of my family gets sick once or twice per year. We each bring germs to the house from different places, so when one person gets sick, I go into germ protection overdrive. My goal is to contain the illness to the one sick family member and prevent it from spreading through the family like wildfire.
The sickie is assigned a specific spot on the couch, has to use his or her own blanket and pillow, is limited to reusing one glass or mug, and must deposit all used tissues into a special plastic bag I provide for that very purpose. Every few hours, I wipe down all the surfaces he or she could have potentially touched with Lysol wipes. I also spray Lysol in every room where the person goes. Sheets, towels, clothing - everything gets washed halfway through the sickness and as soon as the person is better. While cleaning or handling laundry, I wear plastic gloves.
You may laugh, but I tell you it’s very rare that an illness spreads through our family. We’ve had swine flu in the house twice, and both times it was limited to the one poor sick person. We will never prevent germs from spreading, no matter how much Purell we use, but we can limit our exposure once we know they have arrived.
One of the most important things I have taught my girls is to wash their hands as soon as we get home from being out. As soon as we get home from school, or anyplace else, they head straight for the sink. Both girls also have hand sanitizer on their backpacks and have been told to use it if there is not soap available before they eat.
The other thing I am big on is if there is something going around school and my kids are a little under the weather we slow things down a bit. I find by ensuring they get a little extra rest it will often help them fight off whatever might be going around.
Now I will confess when the kids were really young I may have been a little over the top, just a bit. When I had my babies you were NOT going to hold them, much less get within three feet of them, without having first scrubbed up and showing me your proof of immunizations. Did your child throw up, or even sneeze, in the past 72 hours? Don’t call us for a play date!
I still cringe when I hear that parent say on the playground they are so happy to be able to send little Johnny back to school since he finally went for six whole hours without vomiting and they really need him to get back to school. Now that my girls are bigger, stronger and older I don’t obsess as much as I used to.
I am almost afraid to talk about this in a public forum for fear of being smote by the parenting gods once again, but I’ll say it. My kids almost never get sick. I know as soon I say “Huh. No one has thrown up in my house in ages” one or more of my children will have the barfing flu within twelve hours. It never fails. I will take my chances. We have had a few whoppers around here over the years. One particularly nasty stomach bug that took out all three kids at once, one kid with the flu, one kid with strep, and last winter we had two kids with walking pneumonia. However, my oldest daughter was seven the first time we ever needed a bottle of the nasty pink amoxicillin in the house. So for three kids over the course of ten years of being a parent, we have all managed to stay pretty healthy with none of the chronically sniffly, streppy, ear infection kind of stuff that a lot of kids seem to have all the time.
I think the best way to keep from getting seriously sick is basically to stay as healthy as possible. That sounds obvious, but it means taking care of yourself when you aren’t sick—getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, and getting exercise. I am also a big believer in Emergen-C (a powdered vitamin C that you can mix into water or juice) and pro-biotics like acidophilus. Having a healthy immune system will keep you from getting sick in the first place, and help you recover faster if those nasty germies do manage to infect you.
My house is certainly not germ free. Far from it. I tend to use the eco-friendly kind of cleaners rather than the “kills 99.9% of germs” kind. I read somewhere that overuse of antibacterial soaps and cleaners and products like hand sanitizers contribute to the huge increase in allergies over the last several years. Our immune systems are always on high alert, trying to protect us from germs that mean to harm us. If those germs have been eliminated by Purel or Lysol or whatever, our immune systems attack invaders like dust or pollen that can’t harm us at all.
So wash your hands, and drink your juice, and play outside and get dirty. The world is a germy place, but you are tougher than you think.
Tasha Schlake Festel
I am NOT a Purell mom. I don’t have it in my house. I don’t carry it in my purse. I don’t keep it in a holster on my belt loop. Instead, I choose to protect my children from illness by exposing them to the germs in our world.
And guess what? My kids rarely get sick. In fact, one year neither of my kids had a single sick-visit (a broken nose doesn’t count!) between their annual exams. Their pediatrician was impressed, as he should have been, and he asked me what I was doing to keep them so healthy. I told him they’re healthy because I’m a terrible house keeper. He agreed that my poor housekeeping skills likely had a positive impact. Woo hoo!
I joke that I don’t my clean my house because it helps bolster my kids’ immune systems. But honestly, that’s only partially a joke. Sure, there are many other reasons why my house is not clean, as we’ve addressed in other columns, but for the purpose of this topic, I’m going to claim it’s intentional because it’s good for my kids. I don’t use antibacterial cleansers in my house anywhere except when I am scouring the kitchen. I don’t have the kids use anti-bacterial soap when they wash their hands. We practice good hygiene, of course, but we don’t go overboard.
There are studies showing that using antibacterial cleansers in the house are actually bad for you. They destroy the bacteria that actually helps build our immune systems and keep us safe. Studies suggest that the overuse of antibacterial cleansers and antibiotics are leading us to a world of resistant germs that will become super-bugs. This is the exact opposite of the intended outcome. Also, many of the most common illnesses are viral, so nothing with antibacterial claims will prevent them anyway.
I love that there is finally some science to support my poor cleaning habits!
To give both sides of the story, there is evidence that using antibacterial cleansers and hand sanitizer can reduce the spread of stomach bugs. Interestingly enough, that same soap has very little impact on colds and respiratory infections. If a stomach bug does come a-knockin’ at our house – which it has only done twice in 7.5 years – or at school, I make the trip to CVS for a small bottle of Purell to use until the coast is clear.
Speaking of illnesses like colds and stomach bugs, I do not run the kids to the doctor at the first sign of a sniffle or fever. I try to wait it out for several days. Often, things run their course and they’re back to themselves in a day or two without medical intervention. Aside from making them sit in the Petri dish called the “Sick Room” while they wait, there’s the chance that they’ll come home with unnecessary antibiotic, weakening their defenses for the next time. It’s working so far for my kids, much better than some of my antibacterial-happy friends whose kids are sick from October through June.
So, next time you come to my house, take a nice deep breath. Even lick the counters if you’d like. It’s good for you!