handshake germs

Is Shaking Hands a Risky Business?

The handshake dates back to the 5th century B.C., in Greece. It was a symbol of peace, each man showing empty hands to prove he wasn’t carrying a weapon.

Some claim that the handshake really started in Medieval Europe, where the knights would shake other’s hands in an attempt to shake loose hidden weapons.

Whether a symbol of peace, or a way to allay suspicion, the handshake is losing popularity as a greeting. In the U.S. it is becoming more and more common to use a fist bump. Forty-nine percent of Americans today will choose the fist bump over the traditional handshake.

Why?

Fear of catching germs.

How Many Germs Are Really On Your Hand At Any One Time?

It’s fair to say a lot of them, especially if you haven’t washed your hands recently.

Every time you touch an object or shake someone’s hand, you are probably picking up bacteria and potentially viruses too. We’re estimated to have around 1,500 bacteria living on each square centimeter of the skin on our hands. Areas such as underneath the fingernails and between the fingers often harbor even more.

According to Research from the University of Colorado at Boulder, on average we carry 3,200 bacteria from 150 different species on our hands.

Bacteria on the hands can be divided into two categories: Resident, and Transient.

Resident flora (or microbiota, if you want to be precise) consist of microorganisms that reside beneath the surface of the skin, but can also be found on the surface of the skin. They are mostly known to researchers because the common ones tend to recur.

Resident flora is more resistant to removal by routine hand-washing and hygiene. At the same time, resident flora is less likely to cause serious infections beyond local infections on broken skin, in eyes, or sterile body cavities.

Transient flora (transient microbiota), which colonizes the superficial layers of the skin, is more amenable to removal by routine hand hygiene. It is acquired most often by direct contact with other people or contaminated surfaces. The strains on your hand can’t be predicted as easily. Different people pick up different germs.

Some kinds of activities result in higher levels of contamination. One highly germy job is working with babies- spit up and other respiratory secretions, diaper changing and direct skin contact all contribute to high levels of bacteria on a caretaker’s hands. However, any job that requires you to use your hands or any part of your hands will result in contamination. Germs find their way onto hands in less obvious ways than changing a baby’s diaper: handling raw meats, touching keyboards and doorknobs, touching any surface that has been coughed or sneezed around, or touching anything that was touched by a hand already contaminated by something it has touched. So even if you are so careful not to touch a doorknob, your colleague who touched the doorknob and then touched your desk can easily pass the germs from the doorknob over to you and your hands.

Depending on where you’ve been and who you’ve been around, the germs on your hand may include the common flu virus, Salmonella, E. coli O157, respiratory infections like adenovirus and hand-foot-mouth disease. Norovirus is alsao likely- it causes the viral gastroenteritis that can so rapidly spread through retirement homes and cruise ships.

It’s easy for these germs and viruses to make their way around, to everyone you come in contact with, and to mouths and noses as you touch your face or eat. (This is where germs really want to go. They can’t cause that much damage just sitting around on your hand. They need to get into the body to really make a person sick. So they bide their time.)

Don’t Panic Yet.

Scientists say germs may be good for us in small measure. According to “the hygiene hypothesis,” exposure to germs and allergens helps our bodies develop immunity to them. This results in less allergies and illnesses. There have been studies that link having a dirty home or growing up in germ-rich places like a farm with reduced allergies and asthma. So don’t take personal hygiene too far and get rid of too much of the germs our bodies need to be exposed to in order to develop the immune system.

This applies especially to children!

Normal human skin is colonized by bacteria. Bacteria impacts your personal health in both positive and negative ways. For better or worse, they are a part of you!

According to Dr Noah Fierer, who led one of the germs-on-hands studies, the types of bacteria on human hands are very diverse.

Each person’s bacterial “fingerprint” is unique. So it doesn’t seem like there is that much sharing going on, despite all that handshaking.

When a study was done on a college campus, the researchers were surprised to find that, among 51 college students’ hands’, there was a low number of species that were shared. The number of different species of bacteria found on each hand also shocked them. On top of all that, there was a difference in the amount and type of bacteria between left and right hands, and there were differences between men and women’s hands.

Not only did individuals have few types of bacteria in common, the left and right hands shared only about 17 per cent of the same bacteria types.

The way your hand interacts with the environment affects the kind of bacteria on it. The transmissibility of transient flora depends on the species present, the number of microorganisms on the surface, and the skin moisture, pH factor, oil and salinity of the hand. That’s a lot more factors at play. It’s not as simple as Handshake=Staph Infection.

Having said all that, hand washing is important.

Hand Washing Saves Lives.

There are certain diseases and infections have been shown to be significantly reduced with hand-washing practices, like the norovirus, and respiratory infections. In a case where there is immune deficiency, or in a place where there is a greater likelihood of meeting virulent bacteria, extra care should be practiced with hand-washing and hand sanitizing.

Many hospitals employ a rigorous hand-washing policy. Hospital-related infections kill 16 million patients yearly. Washing hands has been proven to reduce the amount of infection. So washing your hands can save lives of people in the hospital, or the elderly and the young.

Wash your Hands Right:

  • Sing “Happy Birthday” twice. That’s how long you should scrub for.
  • Make sure to rub between fingers and nails. These are the hotbed areas for germs on your hands.
  • Don’t forget to wash the backs of your hands: Rub one palm over the back of the other, then swap hands.
  • Consider using a clean towel to turn off the tap. You just turned the same tap with your un-washed hands two happy birthday songs ago.

The Soap Conundrum:

The best way to clean your hands is not so much what you use, but how you use it. The physical action of washing hands by rubbing them together is the best way to get rid of germs.

Soap and water can outperform antibacterial products as long as you spend enough time scrubbing your hands.

The  FDA declared antibacterial soaps can no longer be sold if they contain any one of 19 forbidden ingredients, including triclosan (used in liquid soaps) and triclocarban (used in bar soaps). Manufacturers haven’t been able to prove that the ingredients  are more effective than plain soap and water in spreading infection and preventing illness. They also haven’t demonstrated long-term safety for daily use.

Other Reasons to Hold Off on that Handshake:

Some people don’t shake hands- for religious reasons. Orthodox Jews, for example,  have this custom. They will usually let you know, politely and respectfully, that they observe this religious custom. To dispel a myth, it emphatically has nothing to do with impurity, or with social or religious status. The rule is that people of the opposite gender do not even touch each other, let alone shake hands, unless they are husband and wife, siblings, or children with parents and grandparents.

Different cultures have different greetings.

Even with the handshake, the etiquette shifts. Who holds their hand out first? Before shaking hands in other countries, find out what the handshaking etiquette is.

There’s an amazing diversity of greeting customs around the world. In Tibet, they stick their tongues out by way of greeting. In New Zealand, Maori greet each other by touching noses. Men in Ethiopia touch shoulders. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, men touch foreheads. In some Asian countries, people bow to each other. In some European countries, hugs and kisses are a standard greeting ritual.

Imagine the germs you can get by doing that!

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