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Do you know even handshakes are injurious to health?

columns Updated: Aug 10, 2014 09:32 IST

In findings that will undoubtedly make conservatives leap with joy -- if conservatives do leap at all -- scientists have found that traditional bowing as a greeting is far healthier than shaking hands, high-fiving or fist bumping. Worse are hugging and other forms of greeting that bring you within “wet sneezing” distance of people.

Te only thing worse is having a very contagious person puke or bleed all over you, which is likely to happen only to Mother Teresa-acolytes or people on banned mind-altering substances.

With Ebola joining the long list of infectious diseases that kill more people worldwide than any other single cause, it’s pretty obvious that the less contact you have with people and animals, the better it is for your health.

Touch gets you in trouble the quickest. A handshake transfers 10 times as many bacteria as fist-bumps, with a palm-to-palm high-five falling somewhere in-between, reported a study in the American Journal of Infection Control. The smaller area and the shorter duration of contact reduced the spread of bacteria, said study authors from Aberystwyth University in Wales.

The trouble, say doctors, is that you never know where people’s hands have been and when they were last scrubbed, if at all. Several studies have shown that bacteria survive longer on the hand than on dry surfaces, and even longer in the presence of mucous.

So concerned are some doctors at the University of California, Los Angeles, about hand-hygiene that they want hospitals and clinics be declared “handshaking-free zones”. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in June, they asked for a ban on handshakes in hospitals and clinics.

On a more serious note, a simple handshake is source of contamination, more so in hospital settings where the staff is exposed to multiple bacteria, viruses, fungi and other disease-causing pathogens, sometimes all at once. “The hands of health care workers often serve as vectors for transmission of organisms and disease,” wrote Mark Sklansky, Nikhil Nadkarni, and Lyn Ramirez-Avila in the June 26 issue of JAMA. “Health care workers’ hands become contaminated with pathogens from their patients, and, despite efforts to limit the spread of disease, cross-contamination of health care workers’ hands commonly occur through routine patient and environmental contact.”

Though handwashing remains the most effective way of lowering bacterial “colonisation” of surfaces and hospital-acquired infections, less than half of clinicians and other health care workers comply with mandatory hygiene policies. Patients and visitors bother even less. Alcohol-based rubs work but only to an extent as they are ineffective against superbugs such as Clostridium difficile, which cause acute diarrhoea.

Apart from handshakes, the other big sources of contamination are airplane cabins. With more than one billion people each year sharing enclosed space in commercial flights for several hours at a stretch, airplane restrooms are not the only thing you need to worry about.

Airplane cabins are hotbeds of infection, with contaminated surfaces such as tray tables, lavatory doors, flush buttons and the latches on overhead bins being the top sources of bacterial contamination.

Superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and gut-destroying E. coli flourish for days in an airplane cabin, showed research presented at the American Society of Microbioogy meeting in May this year. MRSA, the researchers found, survived a week on the seat-back pocket, while E.Coli survived four days on the armrest.

Despite cabin air is completely refreshed 20 times an hour, with most aircrafts on long-haul flights using hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, infection is most likely when the virus is airbourne. People are up to 100 times more likely to catch a cold in a flight than on a normal day, reports the Journal of Environmental Health Research .

During outbreaks and on flights, wash your hands well and use a sanitiser containing 60% alcohol frequently. Avoid touching surfaces with your hands (use our elbows to push open doors) as far as possible. Most of all, don’t touch your nose or mouth as it’s the quickest way to get infected. That done, all you need to do is watch out for symptoms and seek medical help early.