The Secret to Staving Off Sickness

This time of year, we face a takeover by obnoxious little bottles.

They're everywhere... gas station checkout counters, grocery store entries, medical office waiting rooms, even our office restrooms have them on the sink. Talk about overkill.

I cringe every time I see one of these bottles of antibacterial hand sanitizer.

During cold and flu season, I constantly see people covering their hands in hand sanitizer. But here's the problem... They don't kill all germs and are less effective for protecting you against the cold and flu viruses than common sense.

Yes, I said less effective. Good old handwashing is much better. I've said this for years, and a new study this year backs me up.

Researchers from Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine in Japan looked at the flu virus in a setting more closely aligned with real world conditions. Typically, studies use flu virus suspended in a watery mixture. But in this one, they used flu virus in a mucus mixture.

That's because when you catch the flu, it's through small particles of moisture that's released when you cough, sneeze, or talk. If you sneeze on your hands and then touch a doorknob, you'll spread it there too. Those particles are in our sputum, which is a mix of saliva and mucus.

If that isn't enough to turn your stomach, this will – they took sputum from people infected with influenza and put it on the fingers of human volunteers. They had it dry and then tested both hand sanitizer and hand washing to see which method killed the virus more effectively.

Hand washing won. It killed the flu virus much faster than the hand sanitizer. The reason is that the alcohol couldn't penetrate the sputum as effectively, so it took longer to work.

There are two important exceptions to make here – the first is that the hand sanitizer test didn't include rubbing it in, as you would normally. And the second is that the hand sanitizer was 80% alcohol... the highest we could find in retail stores was 70%.

Another important point: Hand sanitizers aren't effective against some types of viruses, like norovirus. That's the main culprit behind the stomach bug. And in some settings, like nursing homes, they actually might make certain infections worse. That's because staff tend to rely on hand sanitizers instead of thoroughly washing their hands with soap and water.

Now that you know hand washing is best, here's the thing... 97% of us are doing it wrong.

A study last year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly all of us aren't washing our hands properly. The participants either didn't wash for long enough or didn't use a clean towel to dry their hands.

When your hands are dirty, be sure to follow these steps:

1. Use running water, not standing. The movement of the water helps remove the germs from your skin. And it doesn't matter if it's cold or warm. Both are effective.

2. Lather with regular soap. The action of rubbing your hands alone creates the friction needed to get rid of germs and dirt. But soap adds another layer, causing the germs to release from your skin more easily.

3. Count to 20 seconds. Keep rubbing your hands together for this long. You can hum the song "Happy Birthday" twice if you need a timer. Don't forget to get under your nails, too.

4. Rinse and dry off with a clean towel. Make sure your towel dries in between uses to get rid of any lingering bacteria. Also, avoid those air blowers that you'll find in public restrooms. They spread germs and can undo all of that cleanliness.

You might see some studies out there claiming that handwashing alone isn't enough. That's because flu virus is also airborne through coughed-up sputum. So you can catch it by breathing, too. It's one of the reasons we've recommended the flu shot for anyone at higher risk of complications (see my full issue here).

Similarly, if you have a suppressed immune system, consider wearing a mask if you're on a crowded form of public transit, like a bus or an airplane.

But for the vast majority of us, we can just use some common sense. Wash your hands after using public transit or doing activities with a lot of public interaction (think pumping gas or pushing a grocery cart). Simple soap and water are enough.

Do what I do and scrub your hands together vigorously in water for 15-20 seconds. Occasionally, I'll use a little bit of regular bar soap if my hands are really dirty.

Let your body do its job and fight germs for you. Unless you're a doctor, you don't need to do more. Simply removing some of the germs will keep you healthy – especially during cold season.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 14, 2019