It has become a ritual for some parents: Before
every snack and after every cough or sneeze, mom whips out a handy
travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer to clean her child's hands.
And if the bottle runs out, no worries: schools, offices and public
buildings are festooned with wall-mounted dispensers of the
Do constant applications of hand sanitizer promote better
health? In a recent study at the University of Virginia, test
subjects were instructed to apply sanitizer to their hands every
three hours, while a control group did not take special
precautions. The study showed no statistically significant
difference in the number of cold or flu viruses each group
contracted. Researchers believe the viruses that cause the cold and
flu, including the H1N1 virus, are more commonly communicated
through the air than through physical contact with an infected
But don't throw out the sanitizer just yet.
"We know that good hand hygiene decreases the transmission
of infection," says Dr. Jorge Parada, medical director of the
Infection Prevention and Control Program at Loyola University
"You can pick up almost any kind of illness through
contact. If someone coughs into their hand and then shakes your
hand, and after that you scratch your nose, you can pick up that
Parada urges frequent hand washing as well as "basic cough
etiquette," coughing into the elbow or sleeve rather than the hand.
Since children today often eat outside the home, he recommends
parents carry a bottle of alcohol-based sanitizer for times when
soap and water aren't available.
The goal, he explains, is simply to make clean hands a
habit, not to eliminate all germs from the child's
"We have about a thousand times more nonhuman cells living
on us than human cells," he says. Most of those resident bacteria
are harmless, and some are even beneficial, helping to regulate the
skin's inflammatory response to cuts or scrapes.
"What you want to do is get rid of the unwanted microbes,"
Parada says. "Some moms worry that they're not getting operating
room-level sterility in the care of their children, and they
shouldn't worry. They should just teach kids to wash their
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