Daily Disinfecting Won’t Weaken Kids’ Immune Systems, Experts Say

Kids' immune systems come into contact with so many antigens every day that extra cleaning and disinfecting won't harm them, experts say.

(Photo credit: © Юрий Красильников/Adobe)

Cleaning has taken on a whole new meaning in Frank Mosco's household during the COVID-19 pandemic. There's a protocol for everything he and his two teenage daughters do.

Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic.

"We wipe down every package that comes into the house and the items inside," says Mosco, a technologist and social justice activist in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. "If it's a fruit or vegetable, I use vinegar and water, or water and soap. Then we throw out the boxes, clean up the table, and wash our hands." Only then do they put items away.

As the novel coronavirus continues to pose an invisible threat, parents of infants to adolescents are pondering how vigorously and frequently to clean and disinfect surfaces at home and apply hand sanitizer in public. They also fret over whether there can be too much of a good thing: Will making everything as seemingly germ-free as possible reduce immunity down the road?

Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic. Every family should assess their particular risks. Factors to consider include pre-existing medical conditions, the number of people living in the same home, and whether anyone works in a hospital or other virus-prone environment, says Kari Debbink, assistant professor of biology at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland.

Constantly cleaning everything in sight isn't necessary, she explains, because coronavirus tends to spread mainly via immediate contact with respiratory droplets—catching it from surfaces is a less-likely scenario. The longer the virus stays on a surface, the less contagious it becomes.

Some parents worry that their children's growing bodies may become accustomed to an environment that is "too clean." Debbink, a virologist, offers a salient reminder: "The immune system comes into contact with many, many different antigens every day, and it is 'trained' from birth onwards to respond to pathogens. Doing a little more cleansing and disinfecting during the pandemic will not weaken the immune system."

Other experts agree. "There should be no negative outcome to properly washing your hands more frequently," says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. "Even with enhanced disinfection, kids are still getting exposed to immune-boosting microbes from playing outside, having pets, etc."

"There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age."

Applying hand sanitizer consisting of at least 60 percent alcohol helps clean hands while outdoors, says Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and a virologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age," she adds, and recommends moisturizer so hands don't dry out from frequent use. Meanwhile, "cleaning and disinfecting at home also don't have an impact on antiviral immunity, in kids or adults."

With the coronavirus foremost in parents' minds, Patricia Garcia, a pediatric hospitalist, has fielded many questions about how thoroughly they should wipe, rub, scrub, or mop. As medical director of Connecticut Children's Healthy Homes Program in Hartford, which takes aim at toxins and other housing hazards, she reassures them with this mantra: "You're never going to get it perfectly sterilized, and that's okay."

To quell some of these concerns, in March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of products for household use. None of these products have been specifically tested against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But the agency expects these products to be effective because they have demonstrated efficacy against a different human coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2 or an even harder-to-kill virus.

Many products on the list contain isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. "When using an EPA-registered disinfectant," the agency's website instructs, "follow the label directions for safe, effective use. Make sure to follow the contact time, which is the amount of time the surface should be visibly wet."

Bear in mind that not all cleaners actually disinfect, cautions Alan Woolf, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital who directs its environmental health center and is a professor at Harvard Medical School. Some cleaners remove visible dirt, grease, and grime, but they don't kill viruses. Disinfectants by their nature inactivate both bacteria and viruses. "That's an important distinction," Woolf says.

Frequently touched surfaces—for instance, doorknobs, light switches, toilet-flushing levers, and countertops—should not only be cleaned, but also disinfected at least daily during a pandemic if someone in the household is sick. The objects one touches upon coming home are the ones most likely to become contaminated with viruses, experts say.

Before bringing items inside, "it might be good to clear off a counter space where they will be placed," says Debbink, the biology professor and virologist. "This way, they come into contact with as few items and surfaces as possible."

If space permits, another option would be to set aside nonperishable items. "I've heard of some families putting things in a 'mud room' and closing the door for 48 hours, some leaving things in their garage or car trunk," says Stephanie Holm, co-director of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of California, San Francisco. "Letting new purchases sit for 48 hours undisturbed would greatly reduce the number of viable viruses present."

Cleaning surfaces is recommended before disinfecting them. Holm suggests using unscented soap and microfiber cloths instead of paper towels, which can transmit bacteria and viruses from one area to another.

Soap has the power to eradicate viruses with at least 20 seconds of contact time. It attacks the coronavirus's protective coat, explains infectious diseases specialist Schultz-Cherry. "If you destroy the coat, the virus is no longer infectious. Influenza virus is also very sensitive to soap."

"The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."

For cribs, toys, and other mouth-contact surfaces, sanitizing with soap and water, not disinfectants, is advisable, says pediatrician Woolf. Fresh fruits and vegetables also can be cleaned with soap, removing dirt and pesticide residue, he adds.

"Some parents are nervous about using disinfectant on toys, which is understandable, considering many toys end up in children's mouths, so soap and water can be an alternative," says pediatrician Garcia, who recommends using hot water.

While some toys can go in the washing machine and dryer or dishwasher, others need to be cleaned by hand, with dish soap or a delicate detergent, as indicated on their labels. But toys with electrical components cannot be submerged in water, in which case consulting the EPA's list of disinfectants may be a parent's best option, she says.

Labels on the back of cleaning and disinfecting products also contain specific instructions. Not allowing a liquid to sit on a surface for the recommended time results in exposure to chemicals without even accomplishing the intended purpose of disinfection. For most household bleach-containing agents, the advisable "dwell time" is 10 minutes. "Many people don't realize this," says Holm, the environmental health specialist who also trained as a physician.

Beware of combining any type of cleaners or disinfectants that aren't already premixed. Doing so can release harmful gases into the air, she cautions.

During the pandemic, Mosco and his daughters have been very conscientious about decontaminating whatever comes through their doors. Mosco says he doesn't believe the family is overusing cleaning and disinfecting products. Although he's fastidious, he says, "a completely sterile environment is not the goal."

His mother, who was a nurse, instilled in him that exposure to some bacteria is a good thing. In turn, he "always encouraged his kids to play with animals, and to have fun in sand and dirt, with plenty of sunlight to keep their immune systems strong."

Even though a vaccine for coronavirus currently doesn't exist, parents can take some comfort in the best weapon available today to protect kids from deadly pathogens: "The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems," says virologist Rasmussen, "is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."

Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

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