What are germs, and why do they make us sick?

Germs are tiny organisms (living things) that can cause sickness. Germs are found almost everywhere, and most of the time they don’t make us sick. But sometimes, a germ will release something called toxins that can cause symptoms like fevers, coughs, sneezes, and more.

Why do we wash our hands?

Maybe you played in the dirt today. Or maybe you mostly kept to yourself. But whatever you did, your hands came into contact with a lot of germs. If these germs end up on your food and/or in your mouth, nose, or eyes, you could get sick—so it’s important to wash them a lot, especially after you use the bathroom and before you eat.

Why do we cover our noses and mouths when we sneeze or cough?

When you sneeze or cough, lots of germs fly into the air. These germs can also land on surfaces or even on other people, and can make them sick. So it’s important to always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. If a tissue isn’t available, it’s OK to turn your head and sneeze or cough into a sleeve or the crook of your elbow.

Why do we wipe down counters that don’t look dirty?

Germs are very small, and no one can see them without a microscope. So even surfaces that look clean can be covered in germs. Remember how we project germs when we sneeze? That’s one way germs get on surfaces. But there are lots of other ways, too, so it’s important to clean surfaces frequently, even if they don’t look dirty.

Why do I need shots?

Although sometimes getting a vaccine (a type of shot) can be scary or painful, it can help prevent some serious diseases. When you get a vaccine, you actually get a tiny, dead (or weakened) part of a germ that will cause your body to produce antibodies, which fight living germs.

Why do I need to have my temperature taken?

When you come in contact with a germ that makes you sick, sometimes it can cause you to have a fever, which is the body’s way of fighting the sickness. The best way for an adult to check your fever is by taking your temperature with a thermometer. Knowing your temperature helps to know whether to call the doctor.

Why do I wipe off my shoes when I come in the house?

If your shoes and feet have touched any surfaces at school, outside, or basically anywhere else, they’ve probably picked up a lot of germs. When you walk around, you might leave some germs on floors and other surfaces. While most of the time these germs aren’t going to harm you, it’s best to wipe off your shoes (or take them off) before you walk around the house.

Why should I throw away food if I drop it?

When food falls on the floor, some people think it’s OK to go by a “five-second” rule—meaning that the food is fine to eat if it’s been on the floor for five seconds or less. But experts have looked into this, and they found that germs can stick to food as soon as it hits the floor. (And remember that even if the floor looks clean, it can have lots of germs on it!)

Elizabeth is an editor for School Family Media. She lives in the greater Boston area with her husband and two sons.