Avoiding Illness in the Art Room

A couple of weeks ago, I contracted a nasty case of pink eye (conjunctivitis). How nasty was it, you ask? It was so nasty it caused my eye to swell up to the point of almost being closed within a few hours! (I would post a picture, but I was scolded for doing that on Facebook, so I’ll spare you.) This recent experience got me to thinking about how art teachers can easily fall prey to a host of communicable illnesses simply because:

  • We see the whole student population every 5-6 days (Strike 1)
  • Our supplies are touched by hundreds of students each week (Strike 2)
  • Cold and flu season can start as early as October and continue through May (Strike 3)

No, you’re not out! By following some simple guidelines, we can protect ourselves and educate our students to limit the spread of pink eye and other nasties that threaten us.

Steps Towards Prevention

Because of the above factors, it can seem virtually impossible to protect yourself. There are, though, a number of common sense steps everyone, but particularly art educators, should be taking throughout the year. Steps 1 & 2 in the following list should be practiced regularly since they form the foundation of safe practice. Step 3 is a healthy add-on for when washing hands is not available.

  1. Wash your hands well and often
  2. Keep your hands out of your eyes, nose and mouth
  3. Make hand sanitizer available for regular (supervised) use

Why the Emphasis on Water and Soap?

Soap increases the surface resistance of what you are washing. That’s a fancy way of saying it makes things slippery. It doesn’t sound ground breaking but there it is: soap makes germs slide off your hands (or other surfaces it is applied to). According to the Mayo Clinic, soap that is antibacterial “is no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap.” The site goes on to say such products may “lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the product’s antimicrobial agents.” Furthermore, the FDA has gone so far as to give manufacturers until 2016 to prove their case or remove these products from the market.

Okay, then what’s the key? Regular and proper use of plain soap and water! Many online sites recommend kids (and adults) sing “Happy Birthday” or “The Alphabet Song” twice to help them develop a habit of proper hand-washing technique. Quite regularly I catch students squirting soap in their hands only to turn around and rinse it right off. I now know I have to teach hand-washing as part of my clean-up routine starting at the beginning of the year!

Oh, and do not forget to dry those hands. Insufficiently drying your hands can also spread bacteria.

Art Supply Care

For art teachers our greatest teaching asset is one of our biggest weaknesses: our supplies! It truly is impossible to sanitize our most basic of supplies such as pencils, crayons, etc. Therein lies the danger: how many of us naturally put our pencils or brush handles up to our mouths as we stop to reflect upon what we are doing? Most of us do not even realize we have done it.

Kids go one step further and put such things in their mouths. One day to get my point across, I told one of my Second Graders to imagine I invited all 480 students at our school to come into class and one-by-one stick their fingers in his mouth. I told him by chewing on my pencil he was, in essence, doing just that. He was horrified (but he, and the class, got the point)!

Brush Care

In reality, the only supply we can wash regularly is our brushes. (You teachers with kilns will have to write your own post!) My students do not have time during class to clean their brushes when we are working with tempera paint so I put a basin of soapy water in my large sink. As part of our clean-up routine, they know to drop their brushes into that basin when they are finished.

At the end of the day, I am blessed with more waiting bus students than I can accommodate to help me clean my brushes and palettes. Those students get the lecture about cleaning the whole brush, not just the brush tip, with soap and water. And, I demonstrate thoroughly how they are to do it because, as we all know, brush care is essential to our budget.

Which brings me to a question I sometimes get: “Don’t you worry you will ruin your brushes by letting them soak in water? No, I don’t. I have never had a problem with it because I have used plastic-handled brushes (e.g., Royal Langnickel Big Kid’s Choice 72-Piece Class Pack). If you use natural-hair brushes or wooden handles, then you can never let your brushes sit in water for very long. My watercolor brushes easily get cleaned before being put back into the set so they’re a different story. It is just when we are working with thicker paint, such as tempera, that I let the brushes sit.

Now, Back to Pink Eye

Guidelines for caring for yourself when you have pink eye can be tricky. Generally, you will be told:

  1. If you have pink eye and you are using antibiotic drops, never let the tip of the bottle touch the eye you are treating.
    • Why? You will contaminate the medicine tip and spread the infection!
  2. Use a new towel and washcloth every day.
    • Why? Hot compresses feel wonderful, but fluid from your weeping eye can spread bacteria to others.
  3. Change pillowcases immediately after you know you are infected and change them again until you are clear.
    • Why? Again, weeping fluid from your eye can be wiped onto your pillowcase and infect your other eye (or someone who accidentally lays on it).
  4. Stay home for a few days after treatment begins or your eye clears up.
    • Why? Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is very contagious before diagnosis and can continue to be so a day or two after treatment begins.

As an aside, women should get rid of eye makeup and cosmetics used around infected eye. Oh, and those of you who wear contacts will have to throw out your recent pair and wear your glasses until you are clear of infection.


Here is a list of links that include common and uncommon remedies to investigate should you come down with pink eye (conjunctivitis).

Non-Traditional Treatment

Traditional Treatment

Healthy Reminders

Illness is a pain and sometimes we need a reminder (such as my case of pink eye) to get us back into the habit of preventative care. This year has been a difficult one for me and my family. My case of pink eye infected my son and my wife! My daughter escaped only to get something else. Go figure. So, I’m going to be reminding my students from now on, at least once a month about proper hand-washing technique!

Be well!

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One response to “Avoiding Illness in the Art Room

  1. Pingback: Avoiding Illness in the Art Room | The Poetry of Seeing·

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