If you ask my kindergartener about pink eye, he’ll tell you that it’s caused by touching your butt and then touching your eye.
It’s graphic, I know, but it turns out there’s some truth to his disgusting explanation.
“Pink eye is caused by a virus same as viruses that cause runny nose and cough and ear infections,” says Dr. Linda Fu, a general pediatrician at Children’s National. It just so happens that the adenovirus that causes pink eye can be spread through, well, poop.
Viruses, including adenovirus, are transmitted when you touch any mucous membrane—eyes, nose or mouth—with germy hands. The best way to prevent getting sick, whether with pink eye, a cold or even the flu? Wash your hands.
Yes, this is also true for the coronavirus. As cases are spreading in Asia and Europe, we are readying both nationally and across our state (Prepare like one would prepare for a snowstorm, Gov. Larry Hogan advised yesterday). But more than quarantines or stockpiling toilet paper and ibuprofen, one topic keeps coming up: handwashing.
Proper Handwashing Technique
One reason why little kids get sick so often is because they aren’t washing their hands properly … if at all. There’s almost always something they’d rather be doing than spending even one more second in the bathroom after using the toilet.
So it’s our job as parents to help our kids understand why handwashing is critical, says Dr. Fu. She suggests explaining to them that germs make them sick, and if they don’t like being sick, then it’s important to wash their hands.
However, successful handwashing requires a bit more time and effort than simply squirting some soap into their palms and rinsing it off. Children (and grown-ups, too) need to rub their soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds—or the time it takes the sing the ABCs—because it’s the lathering that actually reduces the number of germs.
Foaming hand washes make it easier for little kids to generate a lather; however, proper handwashing technique is more important than the type of soap.
“As long as they’re generating lather and getting all parts of the hand and washing for long enough, any type is fine,” says Dr. Fu.
After 20 seconds of handwashing, it’s time to rinse and dry hands with a towel—but it has to be clean “If you’re using a towel after somebody who hasn’t washed their hands so well then that’s just re-infecting the hand,” she says. If you’re unsure whether a towel is clean, you can use a paper towel or, as a last resort, air dry.
And, of course, if someone at home is sick, make sure to change out your hand towels frequently.
The Moldy Bread Experiment
Still need help convincing your kids that proper handwashing can help keep them healthy? Conduct your own version of the hand hygiene experiment that went viral in a Facebook post at the end of last year.
To test the cleanliness of their students’ hands, two elementary school teachers placed five slices of white bread in separate plastic bags and taped them to their classroom wall. The control slice went into a baggie untouched (use clean tongs or turn the bag inside out to pick it up). Three more slices were bagged after being touch by kids with dirty hands, kids who used hand sanitizer and kids who washed with soap and water. The last slice was wiped on a Chromebook before being sealed in a baggie.
After a few days, the control slice and the slice handled by kids who had properly washed their hands looked about the same. The hand sanitizer slice had one large mold spot on it, and the slice touched with dirty hands was more than partially moldy. But the grossest slice was the one rubbed on the Chromebook. It was almost completely covered in dark green mold.
Dr. Fu hasn’t seen the experiment online, but she isn’t surprised by the results.
“Everybody is concerned when they see somebody sneezing near them. But don’t forget, germs can also survive for several hours on surfaces such as Chromebooks,” she says. “Even if you aren’t around somebody who is sick, you may be touching something that has germs on it.”
That’s why Dr. Fu stresses that kids wash their hands before eating in addition to washing them after using the bathroom. And then, the key to preventing illness is to “avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth throughout the day, especially in the winter when there are so many viruses and germs going around,” she says.
This article originally appeared in our sister publication, Washington Family magazine. PJ Feinstein is WF’s managing editor.