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Other Stuff to Know - 12
Being Germ-Smart in the Age of Pandemics
The outbreak of super-viruses and worldwide flu epidemics on a seemingly regular occurring basis is making people increasingly conscious of their exposure to diseases caused by contact with harmful germs. Initially, this mainly applied to travelers, especially in international airports, planes and cruise ships. Now, people everywhere have become more aware of how easily they can become infected by contagious germs in their everyday lives.
The New York developer Donald Trump admitted that he has an aversion to shaking hands when he meets someone. Who knows what that person has been doing with his or her hands beforehand? As a result, Trump prefers the Japanese custom of bowing to each other instead of shaking hands. Other people are using the quick fist-bump as an alternative to shaking hands, perhaps on the basis that the less skin contact you have, the less chance there is of picking up someone's germs.
Yet, not all so-called “germs” are bad for you. Many of the countless thousands of microorganisms, commonly referred to as germs, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, are actually good for your health and immune system. According to Philip M. Tierno, the author of The Secret Life of Germs, only about 600 of these are dangerous, especially E. coli, cold viruses and salmonella.
Like most things you do, there is always a certain risk but it is pointless to become paranoid about this matter. Instead, use your common sense and keep the following in mind:
  • Contagious germs are spread from one person to another through some form of contact. Germs typically enter your system through your mouth, nose or eyes, often transmitted there by your fingers inadvertently touching these parts of your face after your hand has somehow come in contact with such germs. Consequently, if your hands have been anywhere that may have been exposed to harmful germs, keep them away from your face and do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose, mouth or ears. Also, always refrain from sharing makeup with anyone, especially eye makeup.
  • Cuts and sores are also portals for germs so put antiseptic on any wounds and keep them covered with a band-aid.
  • It makes a lot of sense always to wash your hands properly before you have a meal or use your hands to eat anything. This includes when you are attending a public function, such as a reception, and have been shaking people’s hands. Other times when it is necessary to wash your hands include before you put in your contact lenses or treat a wound, after you pat or play with a pet, after you have changed a diaper, and before and after preparing food, especially when it involves handling raw fish, poultry or meat. And, of course you must always wash your hands after you use the toilet.
  • It sounds simple but people should pay more attention to how well they wash their hands. To do it properly and get rid of any germs, you need to wash your hands thoroughly in warm water with lots of soap probably for as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice, say for about 20 seconds. In a public washroom, also use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and handle any door knobs or pulls as you exit if you can do so.
  • Since it is not practical to wash your hands throughout the day, a good alternative is to carry a small bottle of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your purse or briefcase, plus keep one in your desk at work and take one with you whenever you travel. Such gels, however, need to be at least 60% alcohol in order to be effective.
  • Recognize that escalator railings, door openers, elevator buttons, the handles of shopping carts, and any public counters are used by many people. The same goes for ATM machines, computer keyboards and public telephones. You cannot avoid using them but be careful with what you do with your hands afterwards.
  • For many reasons, hospitals, public health clinics and medical centers are probably the highest risk locations for becoming infected with harmful germs. Remember this whenever you have to go to one. According to the Community and Hospital Infection Control Association of Canada, approximately 12,000 Canadians die annually from nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections. In the U.S., that number could be ten times higher.
  • During the time of a flu epidemic or outbreak of a super-virus, the second most risky places are any public high-traffic locations, such as airports, subways, train stations and bus terminals, plus anywhere else where there is a large crowd of people. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that wearing face masks made of cotton, gauze or paper will do anything to lessen your risk of infection.
  • Airplane travel exposes people to germs left on the many surfaces touched by fellow passengers and the crew, plus the hazards of sitting in close proximity to someone who may have some kind of illness. Unfortunately, cold and flu viruses are contagious on plastic surfaces, such as tray tables, for up to 72 hours while noroviruses survive for over two weeks. The only defense is frequent use of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers, washing your hands before you eat anything, and keeping your fingers out of your eyes, mouth and nose. Plus, when you are seated next to someone who obviously has a bad cold or the flu, you can request to be given another seat if one is available.
  • Restaurants can also be health risks, especially if they fail to train their staff in essential hygiene practices. Avoid any type of eating establishment that does not look as if its cooking areas and washrooms are kept clean. Also, do not antagonize the members of a restaurant’s staff or they may take revenge on you in the process of preparing and serving your food.
  • Whenever you think you may be susceptible to sneezing, always keep some tissues handy. Try your best to avoid sneezing in a confined space with others, including at any type of meeting. If you have to sneeze, attempt to move away from any persons close to you and turn your head away from them, so when you sneeze they do not catch your germs. The same applies to when you cough.
  • Catch your sneeze in a tissue or, if none is available, cup one of your hands over your nose when you sneeze to prevent sending your germs all over the room or space you are in. If you have to cough, again cough into your cupped hand. When you have used your hands for this purpose, avoid touching anyone or anything until after you have washed them.
  • The UC Berkeley Wellness Letter recommends that you follow the “three-foot rule” when you are with a person who seems sick. Whenever anyone with the flu sneezes, coughs or even talks, virus germs are expelled in the form of respiratory droplets which, according to the Wellness Letter, rarely travel further than about three feet. Regardless of the illness, it is usually a good idea to try to maintain this distance from anyone who may be sick. In the case of someone sneezing, I think it is probably better to practice the “six-foot rule” or even the “next room rule” as fast as you can.
  • Always wash fruit, produce and vegetables prior to eating them raw or cooking them to remove any residue of fertilizers, pesticides, mold or germs from anyone handling them beforehand. This includes organic foods.
  • If you are anywhere in the world that has a water supply that is potentially unsafe, be careful about having any raw foods that are washed in water, such as salads and uncooked vegetables. Also, only drink bottled water there and avoid beverages that are mixed with water or contain ice cubes. You should also limit the water you drink to bottled water and not have ice cubes in drinks when you are traveling anywhere on a plane or train.
Finally, stay at home when you have a serious cold or get the flu to avoid infecting others. You are being irresponsible if you do not. There should be something known as the Golden Rule of germ-smart hygiene — follow the same sanitary practices that you would like others to use around you.
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