Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
In my job, I interact with a LOT of people, and I am confident that my patients would not want to be examined by someone with dirty hair, a body odor, or bad breath. Perhaps I am overly diligent about maintaining my personal hygiene - what does science have to say about it?
Hygiene is a range of practices that keep us and those around us clean, in order to prevent and reduce the risk of infection and illness. The fact that one germ can multiply into more than eight million in a single day can be a great motivation, and when we throw a pandemic into the mix, that motivation grows.
80% of contagious diseases are transmitted by touch; just think about how many things we touch every day. We then touch our faces an average of 16 times per hour, and certain viruses can survive for up to 24 hours. Here are some examples: surveys tell us that one in ten employees never clean their keyboards, and the keyboard I am using as I write this may have some 7,500 bacteria living on it. A University of Arizona study concluded that more than 90,000 deaths per year were due to infections acquired in the hospital. Staph infections from the remote-control devices in patients’ rooms are among the biggest culprits.
So, what can we do to ensure our own good hygiene?
Wash our hands: Only 20% of people do so before preparing food, and only 39% before eating. Just half of adults in the U.S. say they always wash their hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom. Another 25% say they wash most of the time. In general, women do so more than men. These numbers fall even further when younger people are surveyed. Good hygiene begins with hand washing. It takes 40-60 seconds to do an adequate job using soap and water, and of course, this needs to happen multiple times every day. Did you know that we are far more likely to spread bacteria with wet or damp hands? Don’t rush out of the bathroom before thoroughly drying them.
Germs and other particles are ejected by sneezing at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. This means a sneeze can spread germs up to ten feet, and move them faster than most cars. We may not be able to prevent a sneeze or a cough, but we certainly can turn away, sneeze into an armpit, and wash afterwards.
Body odors are caused by a number of factors, including the chemicals or waste excreted in our sweat (like metabolites of alcohol), the bacteria that live on our skin, and of course by any unwashed clothing like underwear, socks, and shirts.
In addition to inadequate brushing and flossing, bad breath can be caused by oral infections, diseases of the teeth or gums, or eating certain foods (like garlic and onions). Although it is possible to mask some odors with gum, mouthwash, and even parsley, it is critical to address any underlying cause.
You may choose to shower or bathe daily, although note that too much water can dry out the skin, which serves as our natural defensive barrier, and wash off protective bacteria and oils. Two-three times per week may be enough for many people, although personally, I don’t like going to bed feeling hot, sticky or dirty. Too little bathing can lead to body odor, skin infections or rashes, or acne.
My daughters have long nagged me to always flush the toilet with the lid down. I found it disturbing to discover that they are absolutely right: Germs dislodged from the agitation of a toilet flush can travel up to six feet.
Staph bacteria were found on 60% of desks in offices. Worse yet, some 90% of office mugs may harbor germs and bacteria in quantities that could cause illness. In one study, some 20% of those mugs had traces of fecal matter. You may wish to avoid sharing office supplies, including mugs. During these pandemic times in particular, I urge you to stay home if you feel ill.
Some cell phones carry ten times more bacteria than toilet seats. Think about it. Where do you set yours down? Do you pick it up after using the toilet, but before washing your hands? Clean your cell phone often.
So, given what I just wrote, why don’t we get sick all of the time? Fortunately, even though our immune system is being constantly challenged, we are able to fight off most attacks. Let’s keep our resistance strong by eating well, exercising, getting proper sleep, avoiding unhealthy habits, and controlling stress. Those measures, along with practicing good hygiene, will significantly reduce our risk of illness.