Oh, how we love them! Grandchildren are a blessing and gift, a chance to correct our parenting mistakes and reconnect with our youth. For most grandparents, spending time with the grandkids is the highlight of the week. Such reunions, whether frequent or irregular, are what they brag about to their friends.
But there’s a downside to all that hugging and kissing and bonding: germs. As in microorganisms that cause infections.
Yes, kids can leave behind more than love. My grandchildren, for instance, are very generous — especially when it comes to sharing their cold and stomach bugs. I joke that it’s part of the transaction that makes us family.
“It’s fairly common,” says Dr. Marcio R. Soares, a geriatrician with the University of Miami Health System. “Kids come over and they transmit germs, viruses, all kind of illnesses. It’s something we see all the time.”
A child in school can catch as many as 12 colds a year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — a dozen colds they bring home along with their backpacks and lunchboxes. Kids in daycare and preschool, enclosed areas where little ones share toys and put what they shouldn’t in their mouths, have six to eight infections per year, on average.
“Kids are like petri dishes,” Soares says. “They’re natural carriers for many viruses.”
In contrast to children’s infection rate, adults over 60 catch fewer than one cold per year, on average. That’s because, over time, people build up antibodies. However, the germ population is ever expanding and, perhaps more worrisome, our ability to fight off illness weakens as we get older.
“As we progress in age, our immune system starts to deteriorate,” says Soares, who is also chief of the Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine. “It’s opposite of what happens to children, who build up immunity as they get older.”
What’s more, a simple cold in a child can turn into a more serious illness for a senior, especially if she has other chronic conditions or medical complications. Older adults also tend to take longer to get back on their feet. “The elderly simply don’t recover as quickly,” Soares says. “A stomach flu that involves nausea and vomiting [in children] may lead to hospitalization [for seniors].”
This familial transmission happens most often during the winter months, when the flu season is in its apogee. But Soares also sees spikes during the summer, when there are reunions and other gatherings. For grandparents who provide part-time child care, the potential contamination period can run year-round.
Unfortunately, both viral and bacterial infections spread easily: by touching contaminated surfaces (such as someone else’s hand or a counter top) and by cough or sneeze droplets. “The force of a sneeze or cough can go at 90 miles per hour to a radius of five meters,” Soares says. “So all you have to do is be around an infected person in the same room to be exposed.”
Spread love, not germs
Nonetheless, Soares says a grandparent — or anyone, really — can do plenty to break the transmission cycle.
- Keep your shots up to date. “The hallmark of prevention is following a vaccination schedule,” Soares says. “It’s going to catch the things that can get you into serious trouble.” These include flu, DTP, and pneumonia. For more information on vaccines, check out this helpful tracker by the CDC.
- Wash your hands and face with soap and water. And don’t be afraid to scrub. Be sure to do this any time you’re in contact with a sick child, including after tucking him to bed, or reading him a story, or having a meal.
- Scrub all potentially germy surfaces, such as stair railings, doorknobs, kitchen pulls, bathroom faucets and countertops. Germs can live up to three hours on these places. Soares recommends bleach wipes you can toss out after using.
- Don’t share stuff. This includes drinks, food, towels, and other personal items.
- Teach your child to cough or sneeze into the inside of his elbow, not his hand. “The hand will touch something else or go on Grandma’s face and it can spread that way,” Soares said.
- Take care of yourself. Eat right, get enough sleep and exercise. Maintain proper personal hygiene. This helps build up your immune system, which will be strong enough to fight the inevitable germy intruder.
In the end, the advantages of spending time with grandchildren far outweighs the risks of colds, flu and stomach ailments, says Soares. He points to several studies that show how grandparents who maintain daily or regular contact with grandchildren benefit both emotionally and physically, certainly more so than those with no contact. The former group scores higher in cognitive function, longevity and income while showing a lower risk of depression.
“I always tell my patients that the secret to healthy aging involves three pillars — physical interaction, social interaction and intellectual interaction,” Soares says. “A relationship with grandchildren does all that. It’s better than any pill I can give them.”
In Their Words
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.