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Column originally published Apr 22, 2008

Don’t Try To Sterilize Your Environment To Prevent Colds

Question: Last winter our children were sick quite a few times with colds and flu. In the fall, I saw advertisements on TV about disinfectants that I can use around the house to kill germs and prevent my children from getting sick. Since then, I have been using disinfectant sprays, wipes, and air sanitizer on just about anything and anywhere in the house, cleaning their toys, wiping down doorknobs, spraying on chairs and sofas, and even into the air. I was trying to kill all the germs that can infect our children. Unfortunately, they have been sick just as often as last year. I am wondering whether I am doing the right thing or not. I feel that I am becoming obsessed with this idea of killing germs, and it is driving me crazy.


It looks like these TV advertisements have convinced you that using disinfectants is going to make your family more healthy. I have a very different opinion and I will share it with you.

Disinfectants are chemicals that kill germs, including bacteria and viruses. We use a lot of them in hospitals because we have to prevent germs spreading from one patient to another. In the operating room, even a small number of germs can cause serious problems. As a result, all the equipments used there have to be sterilized so that they are germ-free.

When it comes to our own home, it is quite a different situation. Germs like bacteria are around us all the time. Most of the germs in our environment are actually healthy germs and they are totally harmless. They are on our skin, on our clothing, in the kitchen sink, and they even grow in our refrigerator.

There are billions of bacteria living in our intestines. They produce Vitamin K that we absorb into our body. This Vitamin K is very important in regulating the clotting mechanism of our blood and preventing us from excessive bleeding. These normal bacteria also prevent unhealthy germs from growing in the intestines and infecting us. There are likely additional benefits of these healthy germs that scientists havenʼt discovered as yet.

The colds and flu that you worried about are caused by respiratory viruses that spread from person to person through tiny droplets of respiratory secretion from sick people when they sneeze or cough. These droplets can travel for about one meter (or three feet) from the person. If you stand close to him, you can breathe in these droplets and get infected. If he rubs his nose or coughs into his hands and then shake hands with you, he can pass the virus to your hands. He can also contaminate things around him when he touches them with his hands.

In theory, if you disinfect everything in your home environment, you can reduce the viruses that cause infection. Unfortunately, it is impossible to remove all of them. You can do all that you want, but your children will still get sick, because they can pick up these viruses not only at home, but in other places where they go, including their friendsʼ houses, supermarkets, school, or daycare centre. You just cannot sterilize the world around them.

Killing all the germs in our environment can be harmful also. You likely have heard that asthma is becoming more common in developed countries. Researchers have found that one possible explanation is that we are keeping our environment too clean: children are not exposed to normal germs like they used to. Exposure to normal germs early in life seems to prevent some children from developing asthma.

Another consideration is the safety of these disinfectants. Although they are likely safe in small quantities, I would have concern if you use a lot of them. It may not be a good idea to expose your children to large amounts of disinfectants in their home environment constantly.

I would like to propose to you a better way to keep your children healthy: wash their hands frequently with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds. This has been proven to be the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs, even in hospitals. Teach them to do this before they eat, after they use the bathroom, after they blow their nose, and after they cough or sneeze into their hands. There is no need to use antibacterial soap, it is not more effective than regular soap in removing germs from the hands. More importantly, germs can become more resistant and harder to kill after repeated exposure to antibacterial soap.

If there is no clean running water available, it is perfectly safe to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer that you can buy in pharmacies. Alcohol is effective in killing most of the harmful germs that can get on a personʼs hand.

As you already realized, it is not possible to completely prevent children from getting sick, especially in winter time. Children need to get exposed to different bacteria and viruses in order to build up their own immune system. As they get older, their immune system gets stronger, they will catch fewer colds and get sick less often.

I would suggest that you just relax and enjoy your children. Feed them with homemade chicken soup when they get sick, cuddle with them and read to them. You cannot totally prevent them from getting sick, but you can make them feel loved and cared for when they needed that the most.