Study: Hand sanitizer leads to fewer sick days among young children

It's that time of the year when runny noses, coughs and sore throats are about to take over many households with young children. 

So when it comes to protecting your kids from getting sick, a new study suggests reaching for the hand sanitizer may be more effective than just washing with soap and water.

Researchers in Spain studied more than 900 children at 24 day care centers. 

They found kids who washed their hands with sanitizer, instead of soap and water, reduced sick days, had fewer respiratory infections and received fewer antibiotic prescriptions.

Over an eight-month period the children in the study had 5,211 respiratory infections that led to 5,186 missed days of day care. 

Researchers found those who used hand sanitizer missed 3.25 percent of days of day care. That's compared to 3.9 percent of missed days among the children who washed with only soap and water. A third group, which practiced its usual hand washing methods, missed 4.2 percent of days.

The soap and water group also had a 21 percent increased risk of getting a respiratory infection and a 31 percent greater chance of being prescribed antibiotics than those who used hand sanitizer, according to researchers. 

"Hand washing regardless of how you do it is always going to help prevent cold and flu," said Dr. Christina Vo of East Bay Pediatrics which has offices in Orinda and Berkeley.

Dr. Vo, who was not involved in the study, added that getting kids to use sanitizer is probably a more efficient and quicker way to get students to wash their hands in school. "Nowadays hand sanitizer is more readily available for kids in school. They're more likely to quickly use hand sanitizer than do proper hand washing," she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that respiratory infections in children under the age of 5 are a major public health problem, citing them as "an important cause of morbidity and excessive antibiotic prescriptions in children attending day care centers." 

Doctors recommend that day care centers implement hand hygiene programs that include using sanitizer as well as educating day care staff, children, and parents on proper hand hygiene practices.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.