Pressing the Flesh Can Take Its Toll on Politicians

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 4, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Shaking hands and kissing babies go hand in hand when it comes to seeking political office. Even in this time of media blitzes and Internet campaigns, the bread-and-butter staple of pressing the flesh is still fundamental to the process.

But can all that glad-handing leave politicians a little sore at the end of the day?

Recent reports detail some of the risks of vigorous campaigning. George W. Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan tells WebMD that the candidate recently showed his hand after campaigning in four cities, revealing red and swollen knuckles. But, McClellan says, Bush now says after "months of campaigning, my hands are now in pretty good handshaking shape as long as no one tries any vise grip. I'm good for a 1,000 or 1,200 shakes a day before redness and swelling set in." The flip side, though, is Bush does shake nearly that many hands every day, according to McClellan.

McClellan says Bush doesn't really take any precautions from all the germs he must come into contact with, but occasionally will "use a hand sanitizer before he eats or something. But he enjoys the handshaking."

In fact, McClellan jokes, all that handshaking may even be healthy for his boss. "His recently released medical records show no indication of adverse health effects, [so, perhaps] all the handshaking has actually contributed to his excellent health," he tells WebMD.

Alejandro Badia, MD, is a surgeon with the Miami Hand Center. He says he's "never seen anybody" with a problem from shaking too many hands, but he agrees the hands could certainly get sore from the process. What about the threat of repetitive stress injuries? Badia tells WebMD, "I don't really believe, philosophically, that doing repetitive stuff with your hands, particularly keyboard work, or even shaking hands, is generally going to cause problems with your hand."

He says the people who develop problems like carpal tunnel syndrome may have a predisposition to developing the problem, and a repetitive type of activity could aggravate the situation. Badia agrees that, if anything, a politician would have a predisposition to want to shake hands ... leaving just the risk of germs. He says "most of your upper respiratory infections" are transmitted by hand contact.

In fact, the CDC states handwashing is the single most important procedure for preventing infections in hospitals. And with the abundance of bacteria, viruses, and pathogens that travel via the hand, even the campaign trail can be a risky place.

Should any budding politician want a piece of advice, WebMD reported on an article in last April's Archives of Internal Medicine which found washing with antibacterial hand cleansers was more effective than ordinary soap and water at reducing hand contamination. And a healthy immune system can take care of a lot of the everyday problems.

Perhaps, though, the crushing grip may be more difficult to handle than the occasional cold. Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley has been said to lament pains in his hands because of the constant grasping. He once even told an Associated Press reporter of a technique he has to avoid a large man's crushing grip. "The idea is to get there quick if it's a big guy," he said. "Get there first and you have a chance to control the grip."

A councilperson in Atlanta, Debbie Starnes, says handshaking is a central part of her job and "it never really stops," she tells WebMD. As far as germs ... nah, Starnes says. In fact, she also does a lot of hugging while out among her constituents.

Aside from the occasional crushing handshake, Starnes says, "I don't think I've had any ill medical effects from my job."

Handshaking is an ancient custom dating back to times when it was customary to carry a weapon. A handshake or a grip was a good way to ensure against treachery, or show good faith.

Never the traditionalist, developer Donald Trump will have none of it. Though considering a stab at the presidency, Trump made news by saying he would not shake hands with people while campaigning. While being interviewed on a national network, he called shaking hands "barbaric." Fearing germs, Trump says he is a "clean-hands freak."

Those fears apparently don't fluster President Clinton, who's well known for giving his Secret Service agents fits by the way he dives into a crowd. The president reportedly cleans his hands with antibacterial lotion after a handshaking session.

History notes that both President Kennedy and President Johnson suffered bloody hands after especially rigorous greeting sessions.

But Teddy Roosevelt seems to have a firm grip on the record. According to the former president's biographer, Edmund Morris, Roosevelt shook 8,150 hands at the White House on New Year's Day, 1907. Afterward, Morris writes, Roosevelt went upstairs to privately, disgustedly, scrub himself clean.

Vital information:

  • The hands of political candidates hot on the campaign trail may take a little wear and tear, but doctors say a lot of handshaking probably doesn't jeopardize good hand health.
  • The CDC, as well as people in the public eye who shake a lot of hands, emphasize the importance of hand washing, as illnesses can be spread by hand-to-hand contact.
  • Other studies have shown that antibacterial soap can cleanse the hands better than ordinary soap and water.