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Germ Alert: Protecting Your Family

It's hard not to get anxious about the superbugs in the news, from drug-resistant staph to the new strain of avian flu  -- especially when young children are so vulnerable to infections. But how can parents keep from getting paranoid?

While experts don't have all the information, they do have some clear and practical advice  -- some of it surprising. Answers to moms' top questions about germs:

Q  I've read about children who've died from drug-resistant supergerms. How can I protect my family?
[ANSWER {The drug-resistant germs you've heard about are methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile (often referred to as C. diff). We do encounter these bacteria on a regular basis, but the good news: Only rarely do they cause major harm.

MRSA generally produces hard-to-treat skin infections. Less often, it can cause severe pneumonia, typically on the heels of a chest cold or the flu, says John Bradley, M.D., director of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. Infection with the other bacterium, C. diff, is usually triggered by antibiotics and generally causes intestinal problems, such as diarrhea. But in rare cases C. diff can cause dangerous intestinal inflammation.

To protect against MRSA: Wash cuts and scratches thoroughly with soap and water, and keep them covered with a bandage until they've healed. Check the bandage every day or so, and don't ignore redness, swelling, or pus, as these can signal an infection. If the wound gets worse after a day, see a doctor and ask her about the possibility of MRSA. The same advice goes for a chest infection that takes a sudden turn for the worse.

For C. diff, the best prevention is to avoid taking antibiotics needlessly. Remember, they work only against bacterial infections, not viruses like colds and flu. When you or your child must take antibiotics, talk with your doctor about choosing the least gut-disruptive drug available and consider taking probiotics (beneficial bacteria that may help protect against drug-resistant germs). Sources of this good bacteria include Saccharomyces yeasts (in supplements), as well as yogurt and supplements containing lactobacillus. You can take probiotics after a course of antibiotics, or you can take probiotics regularly. Ask your doctor what's best for you.}]

Q  My kids love snacking on fresh fruit and veggies on the way home from the market. Is this safe?
A It's probably okay  -- and it's great that your kids are eager to snack on produce  -- but in very rare instances contaminated fruits and vegetables can lead to serious, even life-threatening food-borne illness. (Bad spinach, anyone?) The most common culprits include sprouts, lettuce, unpasteurized juice, melons, and tomatoes. But with the exception of sprouts (which can't be cleaned well and should never be served raw to children), a thorough rinsing under tap water decreases the risk for most fruits and vegetables  -- no soap or special sprays needed. So even though your kids may like to munch on grapes or apples on the way home from the grocery store, it's better to rinse off the produce before digging in.

Jessica Snyder Sachs is a contributing editor and author of Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World (Hill & Wang, 2007).