Germs You Don’t Need to Worry About

by Darria Long Gillespie, MD MBA FACEP

For the record, a few of the things my toddler put in her mouth this week include the dog’s soccer ball; her foot (how does she even DO that); and a cracker that fell on the kitchen floor (hey, the floor was cleaned that week…)

All in the name of a strong immune system, I say. Germs are everywhere, and at last check, wrapping a bubble around your child isn’t feasible. The fact is, children depend on exposure to some germs for immune system development. On the other hand, there are bugs like the flu, MRSA and C. difficile, which you do want to avoid. So, when can you five-second rule it and when does your child need a full-scale hose-down (or at least a thorough washing of hands)?

Don’t Worry

While I don’t recommend seeking out exposures simply for the sake of reducing allergies, you needn’t run for the sterilizer in these cases:

  • Fido: Several studies have shown that having a dog in the first years of life is associated with a reduced risk of asthma, wheezing, and allergies.
  • Soil: The diversity of exposures children have from growing up on a farm or rural area also seems to be linked to fewer allergies and asthma. While most of us don’t live on a farm, our children can have similar benefits just by letting them play in the park or backyard.

Don’t Ignore

Your child drops her pacifier. She gets into your purse. She’s reaching for the counter while you make dinner. These germ hot spots can’t be ignored. You’ll need to wash your child’s face and hands with soap and water, along with the item that belongs to her, when contact is made with:

  • The sink/kitchen counter: Sinks are breeding grounds for bacteria. When foods contaminated by Salmonella or coli touch these surfaces and the bacteria finds its way to your child’s mouth (or yours, for that matter), it could cause a nasty case of food poisoning and, in some cases, worse. Complications of food poisoning can be especially dangerous for young children.
  • The floor: It’s not so much how long, but which floor. Is it your baby’s bedroom or a clean living room? Fine. Honestly, when kids play at home they put toys (and lots of other things) in their mouths all the time. The mudroom or the mall? Not so much.
  • Money: Naturally you’re going to keep coins away from your child so she doesn’t choke. But my daughter always tries to play with my wallet, and that’s a problem. (probably payback for borrowing my mom’s credit cards as a teen). The New York University Dirty Money Project found over 3,000 types of bacteria that cause everything from acne to food poisoning and skin infections on paper money. While most bills don’t have enough germs to make your child sick, wash her hands if she gets ahold of any cash.

No-Go Zones

I try to avoid taking my child to these places, but if I do, I try not to let her touch any surface (almost impossible with a toddler). And I always wash her hands as soon as possible afterward. The five-second rule never applies in the no-go zones: If anything is dropped, assume it’s dirty enough to potentially make your child sick.

  • Public areas: Any place that’s touched by lots of people and cleansed infrequently (if at all) can spread colds, the flu, and other infections. Think: public bathroom sink handles, public transit handles, and even the restaurant table ketchup bottle (ever notice how sticky those are?).
  • Locker rooms: MRSA, a drug-resistant form of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, is extremely common in locker rooms and gyms. If you need to take your child, make sure her feet are covered at all times (shoes). If you have to set her down, do so on surfaces covered with clean towels.
  • Hospitals/doctor’s office: Hospitals and medical offices can harbor some of the worst infections. Of course, I’m not saying to avoid seeing your doctor, but if you’re headed for a doctor’s visit that doesn’t involve your child, try not to bring her along. And if a pacifier falls on the ER floor? This ER doctor strongly recommends that you toss it and buy a new one (better yet, be prepared with an extra).


Darria Long Gillespie, MD MBA, FACEP, is Sharecare’s Senior Vice President of Clinical Strategy, an Emergency Department physician at Northside Hospital, and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

As a board certi ed emergency physician, Dr. Long Gillespie is a frequent health expert on national TV and has appeared on CNN, CNBC, FoxNews Network, and The Dr. Oz show. In addition, she is a featured blogger on The Huf ngton Post for “The Busy Woman’s Guide to Health… and Sanity”,, and hosts Sharecare Radio on iHeart Radio’s RadioMD, an hourly live radio show and podcast. She also oversees the development of content for Sharecare’s award- winning app, AskMD, and leads Sharecare’s Scienti c and Medical Advisory Council.

Dr. Long Gillespie earned her medical degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine, her residency in emergency medicine from Yale University School of Medicine, and her MBA from Harvard Business School. After residency she joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School, where she worked in the ER at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA.

Dr. Long Gillespie has authored a chapter in the preeminent text of Emergency Medicine, and published and presented research in disciplines including plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery and hospital strategic/ nancial business development. Follow Dr Darria at: @DrDarria, on Facebook