Busy Woman's Guide: Germs You Don't Need to Worry About

Medically reviewed in December 2020

A few things my toddler put in her mouth this week:

  • The dog’s soccer ball
  • Her foot
  • A cracker that fell on the eating area floor (I tried to grab it; she deviously smiled and ate it.)
  • The car. Yes, the car. While I held her on my knee to fish out my keys, she licked the car. I did not learn in medical school that I needed to watch for this.

Germs are everywhere, and at last check, wrapping a bubble around your child was frowned upon. In fact, children rely on exposure to some germs for immune system development. On the other hand, there are bugs like the flu, MRSA and C. difficile that you want to avoid. So, when can you “5 second rule” it, and what calls for a total-body bath?

The Good - While I don’t recommend seeking out exposures simply to reduce allergies, you needn’t run for the sterilizer.

  • Fido: Several studies have found that having a dog in the first years of life is associated with a reduced risk of asthma, wheezing and allergies.
  • Dirt: The bio-diversity children encounter growing up in rural areas also seems to be linked to fewer allergies and asthma. While most of us don’t live on a farm, our children can have similar benefits just by letting them play in the park or backyard -- that's good dirt.

The Bad - When it comes to finding dirty places, my daughter is inventive -- and fast. Touching these areas calls for a good wash of the hands, face and any pacifiers/toys. 

  • The sink/kitchen counter: Sinks tend to harbor bacteria, since we do everything from wash raw chicken to leave old dishes there. That can include Salmonella or E. coli, which cause food poisoning if ingested and can be especially problematic in younger children.
  • The floor: It’s not so much how long, but which floor. The floor of your baby’s bedroom or clean living room? Fine. (honestly, they put toys that touch that floor in their mouths anyway). The mudroom or mall? Not so much.
  • Money: My daughter always tries to grab my wallet when I look away (probably payback for borrowing my mom's credit cards as a teen). Cash has been found to have over 3,000 types of bacteria that cause everything from acne to food poisoning and skin infections. Most bills don’t have enough germs to make you sick, but better to keep it away.

The Ugly - I try to avoid taking my child to these places, but sometimes you don't have a choice. So, try to minimize contact with surfaces (Yes, I know. That is impossible.), wash hands immediately and if anything is dropped, assume it’s dirty enough to potentially make your child sick.

  • Public areas: Any place that’s touched by many people and cleaned infrequently can spread colds, the flu and other infections. Think public bathroom sink handles, public transit handles and even the restaurant table ketchup bottle (ever notice how sticky those are?).
  • Locker rooms: MRSA, a drug-resistant form of the bacteria Staph that causes skin infections, is extremely common in locker rooms and gyms. If you take baby, keep her shoes on and if you need to set her down, do so on surfaces covered with clean towels.
  • Hospitals: Hospitals can harbor some of the worst infections. Of course, I’m not saying to avoid the hospital, but if you’re headed there for a visit that doesn’t involve your child, try not to bring her along. And if a pacifier falls on the ER floor? This ER doctor strongly recommends that you toss it and buy a new one (better yet, be prepared with an extra).

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