As cold and flu season begins to take hold, a new study suggests that parents and teachers should stock up on hand sanitizer to prevent kids from getting sick.
The study published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics found that children who used hand sanitizer to clean their hands missed fewer days of school due to being sick, were prescribed fewer antibiotics and had fewer respiratory infections than their peers who used soap and water.
The study followed 911 children ages 3 and under who attended daycare centers in Almería, Spain. The kids were divided into three groups: one that used hand sanitizer, one that used soap and water, and one that maintained their usual hand washing routines.
Researchers found that the soap-and-water group had a 21 percent higher risk than the hand-sanitizer group of contracting a respiratory infection — which can range from the common cold to pneumonia. Children in the hand-sanitizer group were also prescribed 31 percent fewer antibiotics.
The researchers also found that the group using the hand sanitizer missed 3.25 percent of time at day care centers, while the soap-and-water children missed 3.9 percent.
Despite the promising results, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that while hand sanitizer is a good alternative, washing hands with soap and water is still the best way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.
Dr. Travis Stork, emergency room physician, member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, and the host of the Emmy Award-winning daytime talk show The Doctors, agrees.
“If hands are washed for the recommended 20 seconds with warm water and soap brought to a lather, this is the most effective way to remove germs from hands,” Dr. Stork tells PEOPLE.
If that seems incongruous with the study results, it’s because most people — especially children — do not follow these guidelines, he says.
“Because of this lack of proper hand-washing, hand sanitizer can be an effective alternative to prevent sickness,” he says. “Hand sanitizer is also effective in the many situations where there is no easy access to soap and water.”
But Dr. Stork cautions that the overuse of hand sanitizer can have negative consequences.
“Some hand sanitizers can contain harsh chemicals … be careful with those,” he says. “If placed in an environment with children, alcohol-based hand sanitizer may pose a poisoning risk. Children may be more likely to ingest hand sanitizers that are colorful, scented and have attractive packaging. Due to this danger, hand sanitizers should be left out of reach of young children and used with adult supervision.
“Ditching soap and water is not recommended,” he continues. “Although hand sanitizer kills most types of bacteria, viruses and fungi, it doesn’t actually clean your hands. Dirt, blood and feces need to be washed off with soap and water, so post-bathroom and outdoor playtime hand washing is still very much a necessity.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Stork says hand sanitizer can be a particularly effective alternative during cold and flu season, which picks up in October and November, peaks between December and February and can last as late as May, according to the CDC.
“It’s a balancing act,” he says.