As couples make their way under the mistletoe this holiday season, they now must face (or tactfully ignore) a new set of germ-related facts thanks to researchers from the Netherlands. The recent study by TNO’s Microbiology and Systems Biology department found that a10-second kiss can lead to the transfer of up to 80 million germs.
Not that such a finding is likely to shake up such a well-established ritual between couples – mistletoe or not. According to Remco Kort, author of the study, kissing “appears to be a courtship behavior unique to humans and is common in over 90 percent of known cultures.
Though not so intimate, a handshake is another ritual common throughout the world which also leads to the transmission of germs between two people. Does it approach the 80 million mark? Well, despite being such a common gesture between friends, colleagues, and strangers alike, the germs-to-handshake numbers are a bit murkier.
“We don’t know,” admitted Allison Aiello, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, who was speaking specifically about the hand-to-hand transmission of flu. “As researchers, it’s the million-dollar question. We really want to know.”
While the jury is still out regarding hand-to-hand contact (it’s fewer than what you get through a jubilant fist-bump, as one study pointed out just last summer), one fact remains clear: the implications of such germ transfers are greatly minimized through the frequency and thoroughness of hand washing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hand washing is “one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.” This is especially critical right now, during a time of the year notoriously dubbed “The Cold and Flu Season.”
“With flu season here and the spread of germs and illness becoming a greater threat, proper hand washing is one of the most important and simplest steps adults and children can take to protect their health,” stated Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
Such a statement isn’t groundbreaking in today’s world, but it certainly shook things up back in the middle 1800s. That’s when Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis initiated a mandatory hand-washing policy for medical students and physicians in the maternity wing of the Allgemeine Krenkenhaus teaching hospital in Vienna. By implementing such a simple yet (at the time) controversial policy, Dr. Semmelweis is credited for cutting the post-delivery mortality rate of mothers from 13-18 percent down to 2 percent, making him the first health care professional to demonstrate, experimentally, that hand-washing can prevent infections.
Of course, today such knowledge is elementary. We all know the powerful role hand washing plays in tempering the spread of illness and disease, and so we wash frequently and thoroughly. Right?
“New results indicate that 69 percent of Americans fail to wash their hands properly,” said an article on Medical News Today, referring to a 2006 survey by the Lysol Hygiene Council, “even though 68 percent of them say they believe that routine hand washing is the optimal method for thwarting disease transmission.”
Michigan State University researchers paint a more defiant picture. Their 2013 study found that only 5 percent of those who used the bathroom (within a sample size of 3,749 people) washed their hands long enough to kill germs that can cause infections. This included 33 percent who didn’t use soap and 10 percent who didn’t wash their hands at all.
Who are these people? It’s all of us, says Dr. Philip M. Tierno, Jr., Director of Clinical Microbiology at Diagnostic Immunology at New York University Medical Center.
“Inattention to hygiene is a problem irrespective of socioeconomic class and education,” he said.
So we’re all in this together, something that can also be said for the spread of viruses that cause cold, flu and other illnesses and diseases. If we’re going to work together to thwart the spread of such things, let’s first make sure we’re on the same page regarding the proper way to wash your hands, according to the CDC.
Here are the steps:
- Wash your hands with clean running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap and apply soap.
- Lather hands by rubbing them together with soap, making sure to lather the backs of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. According to the CDC, this can be timed by humming the “Happy Birthday” song twice – beginning to end.
- Rinse hands well under clean running water.
- Dry your hands either by air or using a clean towel.
For more information about preventing the onset and spread of illnesses such as cold and flu, contact your personal physician. In the meantime, keep your hands clean and encourage others to do the same.