Germ Warfare: Common Cold & Flu Culprits
It's cold and flu season again, and the most innocent of objects could be your greatest health threat.
With between 20% and 50% of Americans coming down with the flu every year,
shaking hands is one of the main culprits. It's simple: You cover your mouth,
sneeze, forget to wash your flu-virus-laden hands, and then politely press
palms with your real estate agent. "Flu spreads one of two ways, primarily
by air or by contact," Gerba says. "Shaking hands is at the top of the
Kissing can help prevent cavities; it stimulates the flow of saliva, which
naturally cleanses away cavity-causing food particles. But it can also make you
sick. When you lock lips, you exchange saliva, and if you have the flu, your
saliva is teeming with the influenza virus -- something for which mistletoe
is no match.
Forget stale air and reusable blankets: It's the person in 27B you should be
worried about. While filtration systems on airplanes are supposed to prevent a
cold or flu virus from circulating in the air, there's nothing to stop it from
passenger-hopping. And with travelers topping more than 4.6 million during last
year's holiday season, that's a lot of to-and-fro for the flu. "If someone
is sick on a plane, the people sitting next to him, behind him, and in front of
him are at risk for getting sick," says Zachary Rubin, MD, an assistant
professor of epidemiology at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "The rule of
thumb is everyone within three feet is at risk."
An ugly tie just took on a whole new meaning. Researchers at the New York
Hospital Medical Center of Queens found that almost half of the neckties worn
by doctors were swarming with disease-causing germs. In fact, doctors' ties
were found to be eight times as likely to harbor germs as those of security
personnel, who apparently have an undeserved reputation for being slovenly. Why
the germ factory on neckties? It probably stems from the inordinate amount of
sneezing a doctor's professional attire must face on a daily basis. And since
we know that sneezes are laden with flu and cold viruses, maybe we're all better off
seeing doctors who adhere to "casual Fridays."
Almost 2 billion people ride New York City's 4,000 subway cars every year.
So, short of buying a hermetically sealed hazmat suit, fuggedaboudit: If you're
a straphanger, you're on track for a close encounter with germs that cause cold
and flu. And that risk goes beyond the Big Apple: Whether it's a trolley in San
Francisco or a steamboat on the Mississippi, flu and cold viruses find a way to
stow away -- no matter where the road trip.
Touch & Go
Germs can live on surfaces like doorknobs for more than two hours. And with
working adults touching as many as 30 objects an hour, that means washing your
hands frequently -- after using the bathroom, eating, working or playing
outdoors, playing with pets, or coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose -- to
keep them clean. It takes warm water, soap, and 15 to 20 seconds of scrubbing
to rid them of cold and flu germs. P.S.: While 95% of people say they wash
their hands after using a public restroom, only 67% actually do -- yikes! Of
that group, just 33% use soap, and only 16% wash their hands long enough to
make it count.
Published January 2007.