Germs!

boy on playgroundThose dreaded "bugs" cause infection and are easily passed from child to child in the settings of day care and school. The term "germ" actually refers to a variety of pathogens that are contagious and cause illness. There are several groupings of types of germs that are spread in a variety of ways. It is important to know how germs are spread so that we can take steps to prevent the spread of illness in our homes, schools and workplaces.

I have had more than one parent arrive in my office coughing, sniffling or vomiting just to blame it on their little "petri dish" at home. Let's face it; we get more frequent illness when we have kids. That is because our exposure to germs increases dramatically when our kids go to daycare, school or any place where they have contact with many other children. That is why it is so important that we teach our children how to avoid the spread of germs!

What you need to know about germs

There are four basic types of "germs" - bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. These germs are spread, or transmitted, in a variety of ways. The modes of transmission are fecal-oral transmission, respiratory, person-to-person contact, contact with body fluids (such as saliva, blood or urine), and blood borne transmission. Fecal-oral transmission (yes - it is exactly what it sounds like!) is particularly important in the daycare setting where diapers are being changed. It is an issue when people skip the important step of proper hand washing after using the bathroom. The most common cause of diarrhea, Rotavirus, is transmitted by this route and can be prevented by hand washing. Daycare workers need to have easy access to running water and antibacterial soaps to be used after every diaper change.

Respiratory transmission refers to germs that are made airborne by coughing or sneezing and are inhaled by a second person. This is the transmission route for many viruses that cause the common cold and the flu. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which can cause a severe respiratory illness in infants and toddlers, is also spread this way. There are two key elements to reduce respiratory spread. One is preventing widespread airborne bugs by covering your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing. Preferably we should teach our children to cough or sneeze into the arm placed over the face rather than the hands which are then used to touch multiple surfaces. Again - hand washing is key!

Several common germs are spread by person to person contact. Strep throat, HSV (cold sores) and varicella (chicken pox) are spread in this manner. Our best defense is hand washing and avoidance of contact with people who are sick. Many germs are spread by multiple routes. Chicken pox is a good example as it can be spread by the respiratory route early in the illness and by contact when lesions appear. Blood and body fluid borne illnesses include things like HIV, Hepatitis and Epstein Barr Virus (Mono). These require different precautions that are important in medical settings and are more of an issue for adults and teenagers.

The big take home message?

For most common germs, washing hands frequently and thoroughly is the single most effective way to prevent their spread. We must teach our kids this important fact and demand it in our homes, daycare centers, schools and work places. Children learn by repetition and modeling - if you wash frequently and require them to do it at home, they are much more likely to become good hand washers themselves. Okay, it might take until they are 20, but it is definitely worth the effort!

Article written by A. Christine Linares, MD, Lone Tree Family Practice