Hand to Mouth: A Risky Business

Screen Shot 114With friends and relatives in hospitals this month, I paid attention to this figure I saw recently: Nearly 2 million Americans per year develop hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), resulting in 99,000 deaths — the vast majority of which are due to antibacterial-resistant pathogens.

If antibiotics are no longer our best defense against microbes once they have entered our bodies, we will just have to keep them out.

And it’s a little embarrassing to say that the modern way to do that is the very old-fashioned habit of washing our hands. Keeping the invaders outside the castle is especially helpful when we know they’ll wreak mortal havoc if they get past the gates.

Everywhere you turn these days you find people killing germs with pocket sanitizers. You might carry one with you in your pocket or purse. They are even being given away with company branding instead of yesterday’s pencils or notepads from your insurance company or bank.

But is this an effective way to head off the next pandemic or does this solution simply give us a false sense of control over pathogens on the loose?

Turns out, alcohol-based sanitizers have their place.

► Alcohol kills quicker — in as little as 15 seconds while non-alcohol products can take 30 to 60 seconds. And if it takes up to four times longer for the alcohol-free product to work, the user is likelier to have shaken hands, picked up food or touched such surfaces as door knobs and escalator rails before the germ kill is completed, thereby spreading bacteria.

► Alcohol-based sanitizers are less sensitive to these other ingredients and is less likely to be inhibited by them.

► Alcohol has the most credible and comprehensive scientific body of evidence while non-alcohol agents have not been literally “under the microscope” for nearly as long or undergone such rigorous and conclusive research.

On the other hand (so to speak), germ-conscious people have to realize alcohol sanitizers can’t protect them from every possible pathogen. Norovirus–the Cruise Ship bug of recent ill-report– is not killed by alcohol.

If you have the time and place to do it, a thorough hand-washing is still a good choice of action. But if you can’t scrub with soap and water, having a pocket dose or two of hand disinfectant (at least 60% ethanol) is a cheap and convenient alternative to have with you in airports, gas stations, churches or the grocery store where hands touch common surfaces.

Or take the alcohol internally?  Strong Medicine: Drinking Wine and Beer Can Help Save You from Cholera, Montezuma s Revenge, E. Coli and Ulcers 1 – Guest Blog – Scientific American Blog Network

The ABCs of Hand Sanitizers from Pharmacy Times

Effectiveness of Liquid Soap and Hand Sanitizer against Norwalk Virus on Contaminated Hands from NIH

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Maybe your encouragement will finally get me to be better about my personal hygiene! (Plus some traveler’s diarrhea in Colorado last month.)

  2. Hospitals are looking at copper as a antibacterial agent. Putting it on door knobs and push plate as well as sink handles and toilet handles. It seems to test well… and requires no user thought.

  3. Silver is also a strong antibacterial, stronger than copper but, of course, more expensive. As for antibiotics, avoid them in all but extreme cases. We use megadoses of vitamin C and that has actually cured bronchitis for us: 5000 mg every 2 hours for two days.