Wash Your Hands of Sickening Stuff

This might make you sick: Germs are all around you, always. Viruses, bacteria, and other creepy, crawly nasty stuff is on every surface you touch, including your own body. Most of the time, your immune system safeguards your health against the infectious organisms. Some germs, however, multiply and morph into new forms that break through even the toughest resistance. Then, you start feeling the ugly effects.

Although microbes that might do you harm are ever present, you can keep them from doing their dirty work by washing your hands — well and often. A mainstay of good hygiene, hand washing is far from a healthy habit of the past, when more folks dug into the earth and handled livestock to make their livings. These days, we come in contact with huge crops of germs that are flourishing on our keyboards, cell phones, desktops, and computer mice. Some of these unseen invaders can cause infections that range from uncomfortable and annoying to dreadful or deadly.

Next time you type an e-mail, think what's movin' and groovin' beneath your fingertips. Bacteria are microscopic organisms that are well equipped to multiply on most any surface and survive extreme conditions that would put a person out of commission — scorching heat, biting cold, and even high radiation levels. Infectious bacteria introduced to the body by touching your eye or nose, for example, can create a mighty force of quickly replicating, toxin-producing cells. Among the more well-known bacteria that'll bring you misery: streptococcus (the culprit in strep throat, which can go on to cause major complications, including kidney failure) and E. coli, which prompts gastrointestinal woes.

Viruses act on the body in a different way than infectious bacteria. Driven to reproduce, a virus must lay claim to a cell to begin its speedy multiplication. The cell is overwhelmed in the process, finally being wasted by the intruder. The common cold, chickenpox, AIDS, Rubella, and polio all result from viral exposure and invasion. Antibiotics are designed to tackle bacteria, not viruses.

Flu viruses can hang around for as long as two days on contaminated surfaces, especially if the material is plastic, wood, or metal. Frequent hand washing can weaken the likelihood of viral infection; flu shots promise to keep certain strains at bay altogether. While the common cold and minor cases of influenza might not require medical attention, some infections do call for a visit with your doctor. Watch for any of the following symptoms, all of which suggest a more serious situation:

  • Trouble taking in a breath or exhaling

  • A racing heartbeat that returns to normal, then revs up again

  • A cough that goes on for more than a few days

  • A persistent fever over 100.5 (for adults)

  • Vomiting that won't stop

  • A skin rash or swelling, particularly if you have a fever

  • A really bad headache and/or blurry vision

You might need medicine, or rest, or patience as your illness runs its course. As you recover, give your friends a break and stay home. (They don't want what ails you.) And don't give up frequent hand washing just because you're already sick and don't feel like bothering. A clean bill of health will be closer at hand!