Don’t touch that cart!” the mother said to her daughter as they stepped inside the supermarket. The mother then grabbed a sanitizing tissue from a dispenser in the store entry way and scrubbed the handle and all surfaces of the grocery cart. “Yuck,” the young girl said, “now it’s all wet.”
Americans have become aggressive about fighting germs — in part because of articles such as the one you’re reading. Do we sometimes overdo it?
In fact, germs are everywhere — in the air, on food, grocery cart handles, your own hands and body, everything you touch. They are so tiny, you need a microscope to see them; yet they can sneak into your system without your knowing it and are capable of making you sick. Depending on your personality, it’s easy to become either too complacent or too anxious, but there is a sensible middle course.
The first thing to keep in mind is that fewer than one percent of organisms cause disease. Most are harmless and some are actually beneficial to your health, killing and warding off potentially harmful bacteria.
When organisms enter your body and start multiplying, it’s known as an infection. That’s when your immune system goes into action, and the symptoms you feel — such as those of a cold or the flu — are at least partly the result of immune activity. If this immune activity is unable to stop the infection, the result is a disease such as pneumonia, which can damage cells and cause even greater harm.
The four major types of organisms in the environment are bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. Bacteria cause diseases such as a strep throat, tuberculosis, urinary tract infections and food-borne illness. Fortunately, bacterial infections can be controlled with antibiotics.
Viruses are not affected by antibiotics and, as a result, can cause a lot of suffering through diseases like the common cold, flu, measles, smallpox, Ebola fever, genital herpes and AIDS.
The easiest and best way to protect yourself from any or all of these germs is to wash your hands frequently — before preparing or eating food; after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose; and after using the toilet or changing a baby’s diaper.
If you have a cold or the flu, it’s best to stay by yourself away from other people. The viruses that have attacked you can be spread through the air and can live on household surfaces for two to eight hours.
So, yes, it’s not a bad idea to wipe down counter tops, door knobs — even shopping carts — before you touch them during cold and flu season. Hard surfaces are more of a risk than soft ones. When using a handy wipe, one study found a tendency to merely spread germs from one surface to another rather than eliminating them. The solution is to use one wipe per surface and then throw it away.
The bacterial threat comes mainly in the kitchen from E. coli, salmonella and other organisms found in raw meat, poultry and eggs. If you’re cutting up chicken or cracking eggs into your mixer bowl, it’s hard to remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching the refrigerator handle. And if you do wash your hands, you’ve probably contaminated the faucet handle. Wash both of these surfaces to prevent contaminating yourself and others.
Whether you’re washing your hands or cleaning the refrigerator handle, it’s become increasingly difficult to find soap or cleaning product that is not billed as antibacterial. Actually all soaps are antibacterial; they kill 99.4 percent of all bacteria compared to 99.6 percent for antibacterial products. The difference is antibacterial products contain ticlosan, a chemical that is effective against E. coli.
Animal studies have found, though, that ticlosan has some negative effects on thyroid and sex hormones. More importantly, overuse of ticlosan where it is not needed (in your home) can reduce its effectiveness where it is needed (in hospitals and healthcare settings where people are sick).
Bleach is effective at killing germs, but probably not without saturating the surface and leaving it on for 10 minutes or more. Bleach used in that manner can bring on breathing problems in persons with asthma.
There is good reason to be very aggressive about fighting germs if: you’re sick, someone in your household is sick or it’s cold and flu season. This aggressive effort may include wiping down surfaces and avoiding infected persons as much as possible. And it’s even more important to be vigilant all the time about washing your hands frequently with soap, water and vigorous rubbing.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.