How can I protect myself from germs? Here’s the science | health and fitness | Hindustan Times
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How can I protect myself from germs? Here’s the science

Do hand-sanitisers work? Can I eat something that’s dropped on the floor? Should food be washed before eating? Here’s what science says about what works and what doesn’t.

health and fitness Updated: Mar 25, 2017 16:35 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Soap doesn’t kill germs but helps remove them from the skin’s surface so they can be washed away with water, so make sure you wash your hands thoroughly in running water.
Soap doesn’t kill germs but helps remove them from the skin’s surface so they can be washed away with water, so make sure you wash your hands thoroughly in running water.(Shutterstock)

Everyone has a theory on how to keep safe from germy infections and often they are more wrong than right. Here’s what science says about what works and what doesn’t.

Does hand-washing get rid of germs?

Absolutely! Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of disease-causing microbes and prevent infections such as influenza, common cold, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. Soap doesn’t kill germs but helps remove them from the skin’s surface so they can be washed away with water, so make sure you wash your hands thoroughly in running water.

A large study of more than 20,000 adults in the journal, The Lancet showed that give people information online on hand washing, including when to wash their hands, increased the average number of times they wished their hands from six to 10 each day and lowers infection by 15%-25% compared to people who made no change in their habits. People who washed their hands also fell ill for a shorter duration and were 10% less likely to infect others around them.

Alcohol-based hand sanitisers destroy germs very quickly, but often do not get rid of all types of microbes because people often don’t use enough solution or gel or wipe it off before it dries. (Shutterstock)

Do hand-sanitisers work?

They do, but they’re not as effective as soap and water outside clinics and hospitals.

Use an alcohol-based hand-sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soaps and water are not available, recommends the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alcohol-based hand sanitisers destroy germs very quickly, but often do not get rid of all types of microbes because people often don’t use enough solution or gel or wipe it off before it dries. Hand-sanitisers also don’t work well if your hands are grubby or greasy, and cannot remove toxins such as carbon dust, silica, heavy metals and pesticides.

Soap and water are far more effective than hand-sanitisers in removing commonly-found germs such as cryptosporidium that causes respiratory and gastrointestinal infection, including watery diarrhoea, norovirus that causes stomach flu and vomiting, and clostridium that causes botulism poisoning, which is potentially fatal.

You must wash and scrub fruit and vegetables to get rid of all traces of dirt and surface contaminants, such as pesticide residue. (Shutterstock)

Should food be washed before eating?

You must wash and scrub fruit and vegetables to get rid of all traces of dirt and surface contaminants, such as pesticide residue. Washing meats, however, is not a great idea because campylobacter bacteria, which is found in the intestines of poultry and cattle, can get splashed on kitchen surfaces and contaminate surfaces, including your hands. Campylobacter is the most common cause of gastroenteritis, causing one in four diarrhoeal diseases, which sicken 550 million people every year.

Viruses such as H5N1 (bird flu) and bacteria, including campylobacter, get killed in cooking, so make sure you cook your meats thoroughly to ensure that you eat is germ-free.

Remember, a dropped biscuit will be safer that a dropped slice of watermelon! (Shutterstock)

Can I eat something that’s dropped on the floor?

The popular belief that food that’s fallen on the ground is safe if it’s picked up within five seconds (five seconds rule) because it takes longer for germs to transfer between surfaces is a myth. Food can pick up bacteria in less than a second, though the transfer rate depends on the nature of the food and the texture of the surface. Moist food gets contaminated the fastest, while surfaces that transfer germs the quickest are tiles, stainless steel ad food, with carpets having the lowest transfer rates, found a study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Simply put, if the surface is likely to be clean and the food dropped is dry, go for it. But remember, a dropped biscuit will be safer that a dropped slice of watermelon!

Light switches, door handles, table surfaces, public transport, airplane tray-tables, keyboards on shared computers, toilet seats, faucets etc almost always harbour germs. (Shutterstock)

What are the most contaminated surfaces?

Anything people touch a lot is likely to be the most contaminated and the more people touch them, the higher will be the medley of infections they harbour. Light switches, door handles, table surfaces, public transport, airplane tray-tables, keyboards on shared computers, toilet seats, faucets etc almost always harbour germs.

Because of its moist and humid, the kitchen is the most most contaminated area in a home -- yes, more than the toilet -- with the washing sponge harbouring the highest concentration of germs, followed by the chopping board, dishcloth and cooking surfaces. Thoroughly clean the sponge in boiling water and dry it every other day. As far as possible, keep the working area dry and wash your hands with water before and after handling food.

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