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How Gross is It? Your Germiest Situations Analyzed

  • Alexandra Grablewski

    Is poop in the tub, dog licks on the baby, or a paci picked up off the floor as yucky as we think? We asked the experts to weigh in on these and other grody scenarios, so we know when to call the Hazmat team—and when to just relax.

  • Liz Banfield

    How gross is it...when your kids pee or poop in the tub?

    Experts say:

    There is no bacteria in urine, says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta, Georgia, a mom and coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn. So, a simple pee in the tub (which, let's face it, probably happens more often than not) is a non-event. University of Arizona Professor of microbiology, father to two and grandfather to two, Chuck Gerba adds that even poop contains "your child's own organisms that he already has in his intestines, so you don't need to worry about him getting ill. It's everybody else's poop you have to worry about."

    When it matters:

    If your child has open cuts or sores (eczema or chicken pox, for instance), "it can certainly get infected," says Mary P. Glode, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and The Children's Hospital in Denver, Colorado. And if another person were to ingest some of the poop (say a sibling sharing the bath who accidentally swallows water), they could get diarrhea from any bacteria or viruses in the poop.

    How to handle it:

    When a poop crashes the rubber ducky party, there's no need to go crazy with the bleach. "I would suggest you scoop the poop, drain, clean the tub and child quickly with hot soapy water and then finish bathing your kid," says Shu. As for regular tub cleaning, Shu says "Unless it's being pooped in on a regular basis, cleaning it "every week or two (or when it looks dirty) with a chlorine-based cleaner followed by a good rinse" is sufficient.

  • iStockphoto

    How gross is it...when the dog licks my baby's face?
    Experts say:
    "The dirtiest mouth—and the one you are most likely to catch an infection from—is a human mouth," says Glode. There is a small chance that a dog could transmit the bacteria campylobacter to the child, which can cause diarrhea, but it's not likely, adds Gerba.

    When it matters: Dog kisses are not freakout-worthy, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch your babe around Fido. "I'm more worried about a dog's bite than a lick," says Glode who recommends keeping babies away from dogs unless you can supervise closely. You run a risk "if the baby pokes the dog or the dog is unknown to her."

    How to handle it: To be safe, "you definitely want to wipe the kid's face off," says Gerba, who recommends a baby wipe or paper towel. "But that's about the best you can do."

  • Getty

    How gross is it...when I leave drinks in a sippy cup for multiple days?
    Experts say:
    The risk that this could make your child sick is generally low as long as you keep it refrigerated, according to Gerba.

    When it matters: It's not a good idea to let milk remain in a sippy cup, as it can go sour quickly, before you have a chance to get it back in the fridge. And with any liquid, your hands could introduce bacteria that could grow and make your child sick.

    How to handle it: To be on the safe side, dump unfinished milk, and don't let any cup with juice or water go longer than 24 hours, which won't give bacteria much time to reproduce. Refrigerate it quickly in between drinking sessions.

  • Shinichi Maruyama

    How gross is it...when the pacifier drops on the floor and I clean it with my own mouth?
    Experts say:
    "That's absolutely disgusting," says Shu. "Not only do you have possible germs in your mouth that you can pass to your child, but why is it okay for you to be licking the germs from the floor off the pacifier?" Plus, adds Shu, "adults have more of the bacteria in their mouth that cause cavities and you don't want to introduce those bacteria to your baby's mouth."

    When it matters: Every time. When your child's pacifier drops on the floor, it needs to be cleaned.

    How to handle it: Rinse it in water, using soap and some friction to remove the germs. Be sure to have back-up pacis on hand in case you're not near a sink. No matter how often the binky hits the floor, Gerba recommends sending it for a spin in the dishwasher every day or two.

  • iStockphoto

    How gross is it...if your kids go barefoot in the swim class shower?
    Experts say:
    "If their skin is intact and you dry their feet off well afterwards, it's probably fine," says Shu.

    When it matters: Fungi (like the kind that causes athlete's foot) and moisture go together like peanut butter and jelly, so there's a chance your child—and you, too!—can pick it up from a wet gym shower.

    How to handle it: At the very least, dry feet well after the shower. To be extra careful, have them wear a pair of flip-flops or invest in a pair of water shoes (which have better grip).

  • iStockphoto

    How gross is it...when my kids lick or eat food directly off the restaurant high chair?
    Experts say:
    Pretty gross. "We've done studies on those, and they are one of the germier things you run across," says Gerba. "They don't get disinfected and get used multiple times. We've even found E. coli on them."

    When it matters: Pretty much any time you eat in a restaurant.

    How to handle it: "I always wipe it down with disinfecting wipes for my grandchildren," says Gerba, who recommends Clorox wipes for maximum germ eradication (just let the surface dry before you pop your kid in). Travel with a pack in your purse or diaper bag.

  • Chris Bartlett

    How gross is it...if I keep a burp cloth in my diaper bag for several days?
    Experts say:
    "I don't have a problem with reusing burp cloths," says Shu. "Any germs on the cloth are your child's own, so it's unlikely she'll get infected from it."

    When it matters: "If it's wet and moist and sits around with spoiled milk," says Glode, it's possible that staphylococcus aureus could develop on it, which can infect an open sore, but "it's not a high risk."

    How to handle it: If it's dried out and looks pretty clean, just fold it over and look for an unused spot. If it's wet or filthy, it's time for a new one.

  • iStockphoto

    How gross is it...when my kids play in the sandbox?
    Experts say:
    It's potentially as gross as building a sandcastle out of kitty litter—used kitty litter.

    When it matters: When sandboxes are left open. "Animals poop in them," says Gerba, "and they tend to harbor parasites over time." Those parasites can develop into pinworms if they penetrate your child's skin.

    How to handle it: If you have a sandbox at home, it needs to be covered whenever it's not in use. "I would keep kids out of public ones," says Gerba, but we know this just isn't doable with some sand-loving kids. Post-dig, make sure you wash their hands well, and give them a good bath later.

  • Getty

    How gross is it...if you don't enforce the hand-washing rule before meals.
    Experts say:
    "That's not a good idea," says Gerba diplomatically, adding "when kids come in from outside, they have a high incidence of fecal bacteria on their hands."

    When it matters: When kids come back in from outside and touch their eyes, nose or mouth, which is how bacteria and viruses are transmitted.

    How to handle it: You and your children should wash your hands before and after making meals, when you come in from outside and when they look dirty. You should wash well with soap and water, long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. For help with that, see our mom-tested tricks to get kiddie hands clean.

  • Shinichi Maruyama

    How gross is it...if I use the same nasal aspirator on siblings if they are both sick?
    Experts say:
    Um, gross. "Though illnesses do spread through families, you can't be sure that everyone's got the same thing," says Glode. When sick kids are tested in hospitals, Glode says, they often have a secondary virus or infection to the one that brought them in. That means it's very possible one of your children has more than one infection and you run the risk of infecting the other one with it.

    When it matters: Every time your kids are sick at the same time.

    How to handle it: Buy more than one nasal aspirator, already! They're not that expensive. If you don't spring for two, wash it with hot soapy water or run it through the dishwasher between uses.

  • iStockphoto

    How gross is it...when I change my child's diaper on those fold-down changing tables in public restrooms?
    Experts say:
    Really yucky. Studies done in daycare centers show that outbreaks of intestinal illnesses happen when changing tables are not cleaned between each use, "which is what happens in a public bathroom," says Glode.

    When it matters: Any time you are using a public changing table.

    What you can do: Follow the lead of clean daycare centers, which disinfect the table between each use or line it with a disposable paper liner that is discarded. When Gerba's kids were little, he always traveled with paper towels to line the changing table and recommends also wiping it down with a disinfectant wipe. Shu suggests stocking your diaper bag with "chux," the disposable bed pads they give postpartum mothers in hospitals, or buying disposable diaper changing pads (though they're smaller than the hospital variety). "Lay your kid on that, wrap all the diaper junk in it when you're done and throw the whole thing away." Or use your own portable vinyl fold-up changing pad (just clean it well when you get home). Afterwards, everyone involved should wash their hands.

  • iStockphoto

    How gross is it...when your kid doesn't wipe well (or at all) after peeing?
    Experts say:
    "That's not so bad; a lot of kids sit in a little bit of pee," says Shu. "It's not a huge deal." Remember, pee doesn't contain bacteria.

    When it matters: If they are wearing tight pants and the pee chafes the skin or there is some poop involved (either leftover from a previous insufficient wiping or from the current potty sit). Because little girls have very short urethras, they have a high incidence of urinary tract infections, which occur when bacteria travel up the urethra. Boys, on the other hand, can get a big-boy version of diaper rash, where the skin around bum gets irritated.

    What you can do: Teach your daughter to wipe from the front to the back, so she doesn't bring any poop residue into her vagina. For either gender, make sure your kid wipe well after pooping (get involved if her standards are not up to code). Special moistened wipes can help get the job done too.

  • Stephanie Rausser

    How gross is it...when my potty-training daughter runs naked around the house, sitting on everything?
    What the experts say:
    Not gross at all. "It's pretty unlikely that they would pick up anything," says Shu. In fact, a girls' anatomy keeps her from exposing her mucous membranes or urethra to surfaces that could infect them.

    When it matters: Um, when she has an accident and you have to pick it up?

    What you can do: Worry about other things.