If Winter Ever Comes, so Will the Viruses. What to do?

by Dr. Ann L. Engelland

(January 11, 2006) Just because kids are outside in front of Starbucks throwing Frisbees in mid-January doesn’t guarantee that a cold snap isn’t ahead of us. With cold weather comes more time indoors, more exposure to each other, and the inevitable sneezing, runny nose, coughing and misery of the common cold or maybe the common flu. (No, we don’t need to worry about bird flu, as long as the kids are flinging Frisbees and not wild fowl.)

What can we do to prevent these maladies?

Newest evidence shows that hand washing is the number one, most reliable way to prevent respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Two different scientific studies published in 2005 demonstrated that correct hand washing could reduce the incidence of infections in households and communities by more than 50%. One study, published in the illustrious journal Lancet, conducted randomized, controlled studies in Pakistani squatter settlements to show that the distribution of soap and promotion of hand washing reduced the incidence of pneumonia by half and diarrhea by more than half. Something for Bill and Melinda Gates and Sonny Bono to consider as they look for simple projects that can make a huge impact.

Another study conducted in Boston households with young children in day care and published in Pediatrics showed that the use of hand sanitizer gels significantly reduced the transmission of stomach and respiratory viral illnesses within families. Other studies have shown that hand sanitizer use can reduce absenteeism in schools.

So, it comes back to something we’ve known for over a century. Ever hear of Ignaz Semmelweis? He was an obstetrician in Vienna who noticed that the death rate among mothers delivering babies in his hospital was five times that of mothers delivering at home. Hand washing, even among health care workers, was not standard, but he instituted the practice and has been famous ever since.

So if you want to avoid colds, flu, stomach viruses, absenteeism, general misery and visits to the doctor this winter, just wash those hands. And if you think about it, you might also try sneezing into your elbow instead of onto your hand. Do cover your mouth when you sneeze but keep the germs to yourself or wash them away!

Dr. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to Adolescent Primary Care. She can be reached at 698-5544.

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