Did you know that over one billion colds occur in the United States each year, causing the most common reason for school and work absences? In fact, approximately 20% of the U. S. population attends or works in schools, and nearly 22 million school days are lost annually due to the common cold alone. To add to the mix, some viruses can live from 20 minutes up to 2 hours or more on surfaces like desks, cafeteria tables, doorknobs, computer keyboards, and the computer mouse--items used on a regular basis by school children and other working individuals.
During cold weather months, people spend more time indoors too, increasing chances of viruses spreading from person to person. In addition, the colder seasons typically bring about lower relative humidity--an environment in which the most common cold-causing viruses can better survive--and can lead to drying out the nasal passages, making people more vulnerable to viral infection. A person can "catch" a cold or the flu by sitting close to someone with the virus who sneezes, or by touching the nose, eyes, or mouth after having touched something contaminated by the virus--including surfaces, phones, keyboards, and money.
That is why it is vital that hand washing be practiced by everyone. Why? The fingertips are repositories of germs, because tiny microbes lodge in the soft tissue under your fingernails. Every time you touch your face, your immune system is susceptible to attack. Germs, once inside your body, explode in numbers and can go after healthy cells. And before you know it, you start coming down with a cold.
Maybe you haven’t paid attention to how easily germs enter the body through the nasal passageway or the corner of the eyes—the tear ducts—when you touch those areas. All of us rub our faces so often that we don’t even know we’re doing it half the time, but when skin-on-skin or skin-on-membrane contact is made, you transfer a garden variety of bacteria, allergens, environmental toxins, and viruses from one part of the body to another. In technical terms, it’s called auto- inoculation or self-inoculation of the conjunctival (the eyes) or nasal mucosa (the nose) with a contaminated finger.
According to Australian scientist Kenneth Seaton, Ph.D., ear, nose, and throat problems, which represent 80 percent of visits to doctors’ offices, can be linked to the fact that humans inoculate their noses, eyes, mouths, and skin with dirty fingernails throughout the day. He estimates that 90 percent of the germs hide underneath your fingernails, no matter how short you keep them trimmed.
Dr. Seaton, who has studied hygiene since the late 1950s, said that the conventional wisdom in medical circles is that colds and influenza are mainly spread by germs and viruses swirling through the air after one has coughed or sneezed in close proximity. Thus, prevention was thought to be almost impossible, because who can protect themselves from airborne exposure? “For years, I struggled to educate and convince the medical establishment that hand transmission is by far the most efficient mechanism for spreading germs and viruses,” said Dr. Seaton.
The Australian scientist was convinced that germs were much more likely to be spread by hand-to-hand contact than by airborne exposure. To test his theory, he conducted a research study in which ten healthy people shared a large room with ten other people suffering from an active virus. They were told they had to stay there for eight hours. They could talk, eat, and read, but the healthy subjects were not allowed to touch those who were sick. When the eight hours were up, Dr. Seaton and his researchers tested the ten healthy people. Two of the ten had caught the virus.
The next time, Dr. Seaton repeated his study with ten healthy people walking into a large room with ten sick people. Again, they were told they could do what they wanted, but this time, no restrictions were put on physical contact with one another. After eight hours, every single healthy person was getting sick, because he or she had been infected with the virus through touching. Thus, people were five times more likely to be infected by picking up a virus via hand-to-hand transmission than by someone’s sneeze sending germs through the air. The results prompted Dr. Seaton to coin the axiom “Germs don’t fly; they hitchhike.”
I’ve been influenced a great deal by the research of Dr. Seaton, who said that advanced hygiene techniques are the single most important factor in maintaining good health.
So be sure to wash up properly this cold and flu season to avoid unwanted hitchhikers on your hands.