Avoiding Illness in the Art Room

The Dos and Don'ts of Avoiding Illness in the Artroom.Last week, I came down with a painful stomach virus (aka, viral gastroenteritis). How painful was it, you ask? To start, my fever waffled between 102.8-103.1. In addition to my fever keeping me up, so did my frequent trips to the potty. To top that off, I ended up at the ER after passing out at Whole Foods from severe dehydration. After 4 1/2 hours in the ER confirming it was electrolyte imbalance and not a cardiac event, I returned home to rest over the next few days.

While convalescing, I got to thinking about the precautions I’m going to have to begin when I return. Illness is nothing new for teachers, but my recent bout with it reminded me 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.

Prevention is Everything

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?

Washing hands long enough to make bubbles that are worked ALL over the hands is key to keeping yourself and your students healthy.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

The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver is a good choice at all levels of practice.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 bus students who want 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.


N-O-R-O-V-I-R-U-S. Norovirus infection is the culprit behind what is commonly called a stomach virus or viral gastroenteritis. Guidelines for caring for yourself when you have a stomach virus can be tricky. Here are some things I learned:

  1. Stomach viruses are highly contagious—even living on surfaces for up to 3 days—so wash your hands frequently and thoroughly (do not rely on hand sanitizer)!
  2. Flu vaccine will not help because viral gastroenteritis, though sometimes referred to as the stomach flu, is not related to influenza.
  3. Symptoms may take a couple of days to hit you (sadly, you’re contagious before the fever, vomiting, or pooping your guts out)
  4. Stay hydrated and rest; antibiotics will not work
    • Dehydration is a condition many do not take seriously but should. When the EMTs told me they thought I might have had a heart attack, I was floored! Well, I came to find out that electrolyte imbalance can mimic symptoms of a cardiac event. Who knew?!
    • Use an oral electrolyte solution to combat severe diarrhea
    • Beware fruit juices (too much sugar which can make diarrhea worse), water only (not balanced with electrolytes), and sports drinks (too much sugar/additives/food colorings, and improper mineral balance)
  5. Relief generally comes in 2-3 days without going to the doctor, but viral gastroenteritis can last longer—sometimes up to two weeks—so be patient
    • Once you do start feeling better, introduce food in small amounts.
    • BRAT (bananas, rice, apple sauce, toast) diet is undocumented as truly helping in recovery; just take it slow with food in general
  6. Anti-diarrheal meds or those like Pepto-Bismol may help with simple diarrhea, but can make you worse if taken with a high fever or bloody diarrhea. Check with your doctor if you have bloody diarrhea or a prolonged fever over 101. My fever was high for about 14 hours and then disappeared in less than two hours.
  7. Change bed sheets and pillowcases to prevent infecting others. Oh, and toss that toothbrush!


Here is a list of references for you:

Healthy Reminders

Illness is a pain and sometimes we need a reminder to get us back into the habit of preventative care. Sadly, my daughter came down with my stomach virus. My wife and son both escaped. 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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