by Dr. A. Gabriel Schifman, Medical Director, Pediatric ER at Overland Park Regional Medical Center

Kids don't always listen when parents tell them to wash their hands before eating, after using the bathroom or when they come inside from playing. But it's a message worth repeating: Hand-washing is by far the best way to keep kids from getting sick and prevent the spread of germs.

How do germs spread?

Germs can spread many ways, including:

  • touching dirty hands
  • changing dirty diapers
  • through contaminated water and food
  • through droplets in the air released during a cough or sneeze
  • on contaminated surfaces
  • through contact with a sick person's body fluids

When kids come into contact with germs, they can become infected just by touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Once they're infected, it's usually just a matter of time before the whole family comes down with the same illness.

How do clean hands help health?

Good hand-washing is the first line of defense against the spread of many illnesses – from the common cold to more serious infections, such as meningitis, bronchiolitis, the flu, hepatitis A and many types of diarrhea.

What's the best way to wash hands?

Here's how to scrub those germs away. Teach this to your kids, or wash your hands together often so they learn how important this good habit is:

  1. Wash your hands in warm water. Make sure the water isn't too hot for little hands.
  2. Use soap and lather up for about 20 seconds. Antibacterial soap isn't necessary – any soap will do.
  3. Make sure you get in between the fingers and under the nails where germs like to hang out. And don't forget the wrists!
  4. Rinse and dry well with a clean towel.

When should kids wash their hands?

To stop the spread of germs in your family, make regular hand washing a rule for everyone, especially:

  • Before eating and cooking
  • After using the bathroom
  • After cleaning around the house
  • After touching animals, including family pets
  • Before and after visiting or taking care of any sick friends or relatives
  • After blowing one's nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After being outside (playing, gardening, walking the dog, etc.)

Don't underestimate the power of hand-washing! The few seconds you spend at the sink could save you trips to the doctor's office.