Stopping the spread of germs

  • Good hygiene is important to prevent the spread of illness. Many germs (bacterial and viral) are spread from person to person simply through touch (e.g. germs are on your hands after you touch a toy a sick child has been playing with).

    It is important to regularly wash hands thoroughly, especially when caring for children who are unwell.

    What are germs?

    There are many different types of germs, including viruses and bacteria. Germs can make people sick.

    • You can get germs on your hands when you touch objects and when you touch other people.
    • Once germs are on your hands, they can get inside your body through a wound or when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
    • You can also spread germs on your hands to objects or people you touch. Most common infections, such as colds or gastroenteritis (gastro), are spread through touching.
    • Germs can also spread through the air when an unwell person coughs and sneezes.

    How to stop the spread of germs

    Washing hands

    Washing your hands and your children's hands is the best thing you can do to stop the spread of germs. It is particularly important to wash your hands, and teach your child to wash their hands at the following times.

    Before: After:
    • preparing or eating food
    • breastfeeding
    • feeding a child
    • giving medication to a child or applying ointment to sores
    • touching, cuddling or holding a sick child.
    • changing a nappy
    • helping a child use the toilet
    • using the toilet yourself
    • wiping your nose or your child's nose
    • touching, cuddling or holding a sick child
    • touching cutlery, drinking cups and other objects a sick child has touched
    • touching a wound
    • touching pets or other animals
    • your hands have become dirty looking.

    How to wash your hands:

    1. Wet your hands.
    2. Apply soap or hand wash and rub your hands for 15–20 seconds – you can tell children this is as long as it takes to sing 'Happy Birthday' twice.
    3. Make sure you wash the back of the hands, wrists, between the fingers and under fingernails.
    4. Rinse and dry with a clean towel. 

    There are also antiseptic gels (hand sanitisers) that can be used instead of soap and water. The gel is rubbed into your hands to stop the spread of infections. You can purchase these from supermarkets and pharmacies.

    Antibacterial soaps are not required and do not reduce the chance of getting an infection – ordinary soaps are adequate. Germs are removed by the mechanical action of washing, so rubbing hands together while washing them is most important.

    Other good hygiene habits

    Good hygiene reduces the chance of catching illnesses or passing them onto others. Good hygiene includes:

    • not sharing cups, cutlery or personal items like toothbrushes
    • encouraging children to cough or sneeze into their elbow
    • using tissues instead of hankies – teach your child to throw tissues into the bin as soon as they have used them and to wash their hands afterwards.

    If your child is unwell with a virus or bacterial illness, keep them home from child care, kindergarten or school until they are well again. Use hot, soapy water to wash items (e.g. toys, teething rings) that a sick child has been in contact with during their illness.

    Key points to remember

    • It is important to regularly wash hands thoroughly to prevent the spread of illness.
    • Wash hands for 15–20 seconds or as long as it takes to sing 'Happy Birthday' twice.  
    • Encourage children to cough or sneeze into their elbow, and to use tissues instead of hankies.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    When should I use soap and water and when is a hand sanitiser best?

    As a rule of thumb, if you can see dirt on your hands then you should wash them with soap and water. If your hands appear clean, use an antiseptic gel (hand sanitiser). Clean-looking hands may still have a lot of germs on them.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Infection Control department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed July 2018.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit


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