PhotoTiny humans and plastic pails aren’t the only things you might find in a playground sandbox. New research finds diarrhea-causing bacteria can also lurk in communal sandboxes.

Scientists from Spain recently tested sandboxes looking for the bacterium Clostridium difficile, or “C. diff.” Not only did they detect C. diff in nearly 53% of sandboxes -- they found that certain strains were antibiotic-resistant, making the infection difficult to treat.

C. diff can cause an infection that can lead to symptoms ranging from mild diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon, explained lead researcher Dr. Jose Blanco, a professor of veterinary medicine at Complutense University of Madrid.

‘Call to action’

But Blanco says he and his colleagues don’t view the new findings as cause for extreme concern, but rather as a “call to action.”

"We do not consider our paper as alarming," Blanco told the Mayo Clinic. "We have a lot of pathogenic bacteria around us. We have to live with them, and learn to live with them.”

The study, published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, “shows the wide distribution of [these] bacteria in the environment, and the need for more studies to elucidate its presence in our communities,” he says.

Hard to fight

Although C. diff is typically thought of as a hospital-acquired infection, it has become more common outside of health care facilities, according to the researchers.

The new study highlights the need for tests for the bacterium to be included in future environmental-risk assessments -- especially since C. difficile can be tough to treat.

"C. difficle can be difficult to treat, because the bacteria creates an environment within the intestines that makes it easy for it to grow," said Dr. William Muinos, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami.

Treatment with antibiotics can take weeks or even months, and there’s always a potential for the child to be reinfected with C. difficle, he said.

Sandbox safety tips

Recreational sandboxes can also be home to other pathogens. Roundworms, parasites, and other infectious germs have been known to take up residence in public sandboxes.

To help prevent your child from getting sick after playing a sandbox, make sure they wash their hands before and after they play.

Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following strategies for keeping kids safe in the sand:

  • Cover the sandbox. To keep insects and animals from creeping into the sand when it isn’t in use, keep sandboxes covered.
  • Keep it dry. If sand gets wet, it can harbor bacteria. Let the sand dry before covering it.
  • Rake it. Sand should be raked regularly to remove debris, clumps, and other foreign material.
  • Keep pets away. Do not allow your household pets to play with your child in the sandbox. They may mistake it for the litter box.

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