(By Gordon McIntyre, The Province December 26, 2014)
Beware that handrail, watch out for door knobs — and be leery of the outstretched hand. There are tiny bugs everywhere and some of them can make you really sick.
“Every surface is covered with a thin film of microbial filth,” Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said.
“You can’t see it and you can’t sanitize it away.”
But before you go getting all Howard Hughes-y, using tissues to pick things up and whatnot, you need some perspective.
“Human beings evolved with these microbes over millenniums,” Skowronski said. “The immune system has honed excellent warriors against these microbes.”
Some microbes are good for us. We wouldn’t be able to digest some of the food we eat were it not for the trillions of micro-organisms in our guts, for example.
And, of course, some microbes aren’t good for us if they get inside us and gain a foothold. You don’t have to be Sidney Crosby catching the mumps to know that.
One way microbes are transmitted is from a handshake.
You’ll often see hockey players nowadays bump elbows instead of shaking hands or knuckle bump with their gloves on. Teams also usually supply individual water bottles.
After the recent outbreak of mumps in the NHL, led by Crosby, maybe the playoff series-ending handshake will fade away, too.
Skowronski wouldn’t mind if the handshake — a holdover custom from the Dark Ages to indicate one is friendly and unarmed — went the way of the medieval clyster.
But changing such long-lasting customs is difficult, one Vancouver clinical psychologist said.
“When we look at a custom such as shaking hands, that’s a social norm that’s been established over centuries, and as human beings we are social creatures,” said Joti Samra, who is also an adjunct professor at SFU. A handshake conveys a lot of non-verbal communication, she said: Respect, trust, equality between individuals.
“From an analytical perspective, (shaking hands) actually doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense,” Samra said. “But, what happens is, we don’t want to offend people.”
As it turns out, your hands are actually your first line of defence against microbes.
“The skin on your hands is hardy,” Skowronski said.
“Hands are a harsh environment themselves. They have high acidity, they sweat, the skin is coarse.”
Then there’s your body’s immune system for the bug to overcome.
“Even if you do inoculate yourself, those poor viruses still face a fight,” Skowronski said.
“They have to overcome those soldiers to set up their territory.”
The best way to stay well is to keep your hands away from the wet places on your face: Your eyes, mouth and nose. “That’s so important. People don’t emphasize that enough,” Skowronski said.
It doesn’t hurt to keep certain surfaces clean, such as kitchen counters, she added: “I don’t mean obsessively, but reasonably clean.”
Generally, microbes can survive up to 48 hours on hard surfaces such as steel, but their potency fades with each passing hour.
Sneeze and cough into your sleeve, not your hand (preferably the opposite arm to the one you use to shake hands); wash your hands often; and, instead of shaking hands, fist bump or even high five, which limits contact.
“Shaking hands originally meant ‘See! I have no weapon,’ ” Skowronski said. “But you might be bringing a weapon in microbes.”
Skowronski is a fan of the knuckle-touch that’s popular among youths as an alternative to shaking hands.
“In any case, maybe we need to make that more cool among adults, too, maybe follow the lead of our youth,” she said. “It may be difficult culturally, politically, even financially, but I think in time the ancient tradition of the handshake will someday fade out.”
Another sensible precaution is to get vaccinated.
But there is confusion for some, and outright fear for others, over just what a vaccination is.
Take the flu, for example.
The vaccine is an inactive form of the influenza virus, which cannot replicate itself.
Furthermore, it’s bashed into tiny pieces, Skowronski said.
The vaccination itself can’t infect you, it just gives your body’s defences a heads-up as to what may be on the way.
“It introduces your immune system to pieces of the virus, so your immune system’s guns are preloaded. They can recognize the danger and respond to it faster,” Skowronski said.
When people ask her if they can get sick from the vaccine, she replies: “It’s like asking, can a ground chicken lay an egg? It cannot, it’s dead and it’s ground up.”
Ultimately, after washing your hands and avoiding touching your face, it’s about trusting your immune system.
“We have good defences,” Skowronski said. “If you do your part, your immune system will do its part.”
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