By Child and Youth Health
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Teen brushing teeth
 
Hygiene is important for anyone taking care of children, and is one of the most effective ways we have to protect ourselves – and others – from illness.

The basics

Hygiene especially means washing your hands, but it’s also about washing the rest of your body. It involves being careful not to cough or sneeze on others, cleaning things you touch, throwing away things that might have germs on them (such as used tissues), and using protection when you might be at risk of catching or spreading an infection. It also means taking care when handling and storing food.

You might like to check out our illustrated guide to personal hygiene for kids. You could print it out and stick it up where all your family can see it.

Hand washing

Hand washing is the best thing we can do to protect ourselves from many contagious diseases. You and your children should wash hands before eating or preparing food, and after going to the toilet, smoking, touching animals, gardening or handling objects soiled with blood or other body substances.

Most of the infections we get, particularly colds and gastro, are caught when our hands get germs on them, and then we put them in our mouths. We can also pick up some illnesses when other people’s dirty hands touch the food we eat. It’s important to keep hands as clean as possible, particularly if you’re around food.

Washing hands

  • Use clean water and soap (or an alternative), covering your hands and wrists.
  • Use a brush to get under nails if they’re dirty as well.
  • Use something clean to dry your hands, such as paper towel or a hot air dryer.

Alcohol-based sanitisers – which don’t need water – are an excellent alternative to traditional hand washing, particularly when you haven’t got soap and water handy. Put about half a teaspoon of the product in the palm of your hand, then rub your hands together, covering all surfaces of your hands, until they’re dry. If you can see dirt on your hands, wash them with soap and water instead.

If you can make hand washing fun, children are more likely to get into it. Teach them to wash while they sing, ‘This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands. This is the way we wash our hands and wash the germs away’.

Food

Food poisoning is an illness you can get after eating food that has harmful germs in it, or after eating food that contains a toxin (poison) made by some germs. This is called contaminated food.

If you have food poisoning, you can feel sick, vomit, have abdominal (tummy) pains and diarrhoea (runny poo). This can start a couple of hours to a day or so after eating the contaminated food. You usually can’t tell if food has been contaminated because the germs usually don’t make the food smell or taste different.

Avoiding food contamination

  • Always have clean hands before you eat or prepare food. If you have a cut or wound, make sure it’s completely covered by a waterproof wound strip or a bandage. It can help to use brightly coloured wound strips so you can see them easily if they fall off. 
  • When preparing food, keep your work area clean. Wear clean, protective clothing, such as an apron. If you have long hair, tie it back.
  • Prepare raw and cooked foods on separate work areas with separate knives, spoons and other utensils.
  • Use clean water to wash all food that will be eaten raw (such as fruit and vegetables).
  • Store foods at the right temperature.
  • Keep perishable food, such as fresh meat, milk and vegetables, refrigerated. 
  • Don’t thaw frozen food at room temperature – let it thaw out in the fridge. 
  • Don’t keep cooked food at room temperature – keep it either hot or cold. 
  • If you’re reheating foods, make sure the food gets hot right through. 
  • When you’ve thawed frozen food, don’t refreeze it. If you’ve already reheated food once, don’t let it get cold and then reheat it again.

Personal hygiene

People first came up with the idea of hygiene to stop the spread of infection. Now we also use the word ‘hygiene’ to talk about making sure our body is acceptable to others.

What you do about personal hygiene very much depends on the culture you live in.

In some cultures, it’s expected that you wash your body at least every day, and that you use deodorant to stop body smells. In other cultures, different ‘routines’ might be the norm.

Body odour

Some people make judgments about others based on what they look and smell like.

Body smells are caused partly by:

  • chemicals that the body makes (such as the pheromones or ‘sexual’ chemicals that attract – or repel – others) 
  • things the body is trying to get rid of by breathing them out (such as garlic and alcohol) 
  • the actions of bacteria on the skin and clothes.

There are always bacteria on the skin, which ‘feed’ on dead skin cells and fluids such as sweat. Some of these bacteria make chemicals that smell unpleasant, such as methane and hydrogen sulphide (‘rotten egg gas’). Washing and using deodorant can get rid of many of these smelly chemicals for a while, but they build up again every day.

Clothes (especially socks and underwear) can be smelly and unpleasant to others after they’ve been worn for more than one day. Making sure they’re changed every day is usually the thing to do in places where it’s easy to wash clothes. In some places, this might not be possible.

Shoes often get very smelly, which is caused by bacteria (germs). Putting them outside to ‘air’ and dry completely will kill the bacteria and help lessen the smell.

Having clean hair is something many people prefer.

Cigarette smoke, whether you’re a smoker or are around people who smoke, can cling to your clothes with an unpleasant smell.

For girls

The vagina is an area of the body that’s able to clean itself.

No special care is needed other than washing the outside of the genital area in the same way other areas are washed (for example, in the bath or shower).

Putting anything into the vagina can damage the delicate skin inside, making it easier for germs to cause an infection. Tampons can damage the skin of the vagina, as can douches (preparations that can be bought to clean the vagina).

For boys

Boys should learn how to wash their penis and scrotum (balls) in the same way they learn how to wash other parts of their body.

For most male babies and many young boys, the foreskin is attached to the glans (the tip of the penis). Forcing it away from the glans might cause damage to the tip of the penis or the foreskin, so it’s best not to force back the foreskin.

Like every other part of the body, the tip of the penis and underneath the foreskin should be cleaned regularly once the foreskin moves easily. Don’t use soap when washing under the foreskin because it can irritate the skin.

With time the foreskin moves back more easily, and boys should be encouraged to wash under the foreskin every time they bath or shower. The white stuff (smegma) under the foreskin is natural and doesn’t cause health problems – it simply needs to be washed away regularly.

You might like to read more about genital care for babies and young children.

Bad breath

There are several things that can cause bad breath – for example, diseases of the teeth, gums and mouth, indigestion and some other health problems.

Most people have ‘bad breath’ first thing in the morning because not much saliva (which ‘washes’ the mouth) is made while they’re asleep. After you have something to drink and eat, and once you clean your teeth, your breath will smell better again.

Some things we eat or drink can cause our breath to smell ‘bad’ for a while, such as garlic, onion and alcohol. The body gets rid of these unwanted chemicals by moving them from the blood into the lungs, then into the air that we breathe out. It can take many hours for the smell to go away. Because the smell’s in the air that we breathe out, cleaning teeth won’t get rid of it.

Cigarette smoking can make breath smelly and stain teeth yellow.

Bad breath can also be caused by decaying teeth or a gum infection. There might be some bleeding from the gums. It’s important to have regular visits to the dentist, to brush twice a day, and floss often.

Mouth washes and sprays and flavoured chewing gum can make your breath smell better for a little while. But if you have a health problem in your mouth, the smell will come back, so see your dentist.

It’s a good idea to start regular visits to the dentist from a young age to familiarise your child with good dental habits. Dentists recommend children have their first professional dental examination no later than six months after the first tooth appears.

For more information, you might like to read the following articles:

Travelling and hygiene

When travelling, especially overseas, take special care if you’re not sure whether the water is safe to use.

A shower with hot water is probably OK, but don’t use tap water for cleaning your teeth unless you’re very sure it’s safe.

If you need to wash your hands but aren’t sure about the water, check that your hands are totally dry before you touch any food. Don’t wash fruit or vegetables in unsafe water.

If you don’t have a safe water supply, make sure the water is boiled before you drink it (it’s usually recommended that the water be held at a rolling boil for one minute). Also make sure any washed dishes are clean and totally dry before they’re used again.

Different ‘authorities’ recommend different times for how long water needs to be boiled – some recommend up to five minutes, but one minute should be enough. Many electric jugs boil for less than 30 seconds, which probably isn’t long enough. Boiling water in a kettle or saucepan on the stove might be better.

Safety and blood

Infections can be passed from one person to another through contact with blood. It’s wise to think of all blood as possibly infected so you always do the things you need to do to keep yourself safe. But it might help to be aware of the following points:

  • Touching blood with your hand or other part of your skin won’t give you an infection if your skin is ‘intact’ (that is, if there are no sores or cuts on your skin). 
  • If the blood’s dry, it will usually be safe. Germs mostly only live for a short time – only a few minutes when they’re dry and outside the body. 
  • You won’t get an infection if the other person doesn’t have an infection.

If someone’s bleeding and needs your help, you can take the following precautions:

  • Try to make sure you don’t touch the blood or injured part of that person’s body. 
  • You could wear plastic gloves or cover your hand with plastic wrap or a plastic bag. 
  • You could give the dressing to the injured person to hold on the wound while you stay close and give your support.

If you do need to touch something with blood on it, or you do so accidentally, it’s unlikely that you’ll get an infection, because most blood-borne infections need blood-to-blood contact (for example,  getting blood into a cut that you already have on your body). If you’re concerned, see your doctor, who’ll be able to talk about the risk, and have blood tests done if needed.