Soap vs Sanitizers

hand-sanitizerYou squirt it on your hands as you enter the grocery store, and then again on your way out. You have bottles in your car, on your desk and in your home too – and you use them often.

And no, you’re not a germophobe, it’s just that your hand-sanitizer habit is helping to protect you from colds and flu and other nasty’s, that are wet, sticky and not yours!

And even if it doesn’t, it’s harmless. Right?

Not so fast! Word on the street has it that despite how clean your hands feel after using a hand sanitizer, they’re actually still dirty.  Worse still, they’re potentially toxic and might actually lower your resistance to disease.

So are these rumors true?!  Let’s take a look at the evidence.

hand-sanitizer-triclosanWhen it comes to safety and effectiveness, the main concern with hand sanitizers is triclosan, – the main antibacterial ingredient used in non-alcoholic hand sanitizers.

There’s no good evidence that triclosan-containing products have a benefit,” says Allison Aiello PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. In fact, hospitals in Europe and the United States, won’t even use them because it’s thought that they don’t reduce infections or illness.

Dr. Anna Bowen, an epidemiologist at The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, “Triclosan-containing products don’t provide any disease protection beyond what you get from washing with soap and water.”

Research has shown that triclosan can disrupt the endocrine system, amplifying testosterone. In animal studies, it reduced muscle strength. It may also harm the immune system. Whether these findings add up to human toxicity isn’t established yet, but the FDA is currently reviewing the issue.

A more established concern: “When you expose bacteria to triclosan, it can elicit antibiotic resistance,” says Aiello. “Once the resistance is transferred, pathogenic bacteria can become resistant to many types of antibiotics.”   She also points out that quaternary ammonium, another antibacterial found in nonalcoholic hand sanitizers, has been shown to elicit antibiotic resistance.

The main concern with triclosan, that it’s an anti-bacterial, meaning it doesn’t protect against viruses or fungi.  Which means, colds and flu are not destroyed because they are caused by viruses, not bacteria.

Alcohol-based sanitizers, on the other hand, are fairly effective and safe. Those that contain  60% alcohol are good at killing bacterial pathogens and can also kill some viruses though not all of them.  Norovirus, for example, the bug responsible for the recent cruise-ship outbreaks is not affected.

If you can’t get to a sink quickly, an alcohol-based sanitizer is a good alternative to washing with soap and water,” says Aiello.

One caveat: They don’t work on visibly dirty hands.  The alcohol can’t get past the dirt.

handwashing_355pxSo how does soap and water match up?   First, they are both safe and effective. That’s right. Good old-fashioned hand washing before you prepare food or after you go to the toilet has been shown to drastically reduce the risk of diarrhea.

Hand-washing campaigns reduce absenteeism in schools,” says Bowen, “and that means parents miss fewer days of work, too.”

But, and it’s a big but – you have to wash your hands correctly.

According to the CDC you need to wash for about 24 seconds to remove bacteria and viruses from your hands. You need to cover all parts of your hands, front and back and under your nails and then dry your hands well.

have u washedHow long is 24 seconds? Apparently it’s about as long as it takes to sing two verses of Happy Birthday.  However, as I always tell my infection control students, if you’re in public, sing it with your inner voice …or you could have more than germs to worry about!

Bottom line –  soap and water beats sanitizers hands-down.  Suds up and stay safe this cold and flu season.

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School is in Session and So Too Are Germs

calculusWhile many parents don’t remember much algebra or calculus, most know all too well that school + kids = sick days.

And with more than 200 cold viruses identified,  it’s no wonder parents feel like they are fighting a losing battle when it comes to keeping their kids healthy.

Kids will be exposed to germs and inevitably get colds, even with the best preventive measures, and that’s OK,” said Jessica McIntyre, MD, family physician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

According to McIntyre, young children will get between 7 and 8 colds a year and school-age children will average 5-6 colds a year. Kids tend to get more colds during the school year because they are in an enclosed classroom surrounded by other children who are sharing these very common viruses.

Parents sometimes worry that they have done something wrong to cause frequent colds, or that their child is not healthy. Actually, cold viruses help build a child’s immune system and are an unavoidable part of growing up,” McIntyre said.

smackdown_school_germs-e1317828551255Nevertheless, we bring you some tips to help keep your child’s sick days to a minimum

  1. You’ve taught your kids their ABCs –  now teach them their CCCs?
    a. Clean – wash your hands and make sure your kids wash their hands frequently
    b. Cover – cover your cough and sneeze, preferably with a tissue, but if one is not available, cough or sneeze into your elbow
    c. Contain – stay at home if you are sick; germs are one thing that aren’t good to share
  2. Family flu vaccines. Everyone who is 6 months or older should be vaccinated. Talk to your physician about which type of vaccine is right for your family members.
  3. Have your children wash their hands as soon as they get home from school.
  4. Change into “home clothes and shoes.”  It helps keep germs, allergens and dirt out of the house making it easier to keep clean. Plus, you won’t be searching the house for shoes that were kicked off under the couch.This is especially beneficial if you have a young infant at home
  5. Wash their lunch box daily. Lunch boxes carry more than veggies and fruit to and from school. They also carry A LOT of germs. If they’re dishwasher safe, run them through the sanitizing cycle at the end of each day. If not, spray them down with vinegar and water and wipe them clean before packing a new lunch
  6. Backpacks are another huge germ culprit. They make their way onto tables, beds and desks and can transfer nasty germs to all of these surfaces. Wash backpacks once a week to minimize the spread of germs.
  7. Reduce consumption of sugary foods before and during school. Consuming just a teaspoon of sugar weakens the immune system for up to 4 hours. To help the body fight germs, make sure to offer a low sugar breakfast and low sugar lunch. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. They are generally loaded with sugars.

big-stinky-germsAnd if you’d still like to do more to keep your little darlings safe, there is some evidence that certain  products can be effective in cold prevention if taken regularly:
(i) Probiotics: 1 gram mixed with milk twice daily
(ii) Vitamin C: 1 gram daily
(iii) Zinc sulfate: 15 mg syrup or 10 mg tablet daily

Despite all that, if they do develop a cold, don’t stress about it!  Everyone gets sick sometimes. And while we all hate to see  kids feeling bad, just remember, when they get sick their bodies are building up their ability to fight future infections.

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