Germs: Are We All Too Clean?
Whether it be the ‘five-second rule’ after dropping a crisp, or vigorously using hand sanitiser when getting off the tube, there are lots of habits, rituals and rules that we follow when it comes to germs and hygiene, but are all of them necessary? Could we actually benefit from a few germs every now and then, and how often should we really be washing our hands? Dr Daniel Fenton, Clinical Director at London Doctors Clinic, is here to bust the myths...
Myth 1: All germs are bad for you
Our bodies contain millions, if not billions of bacteria. The gut is a great example, the perfect combination of bacteria in the gut, known as our “gut flora” keep us healthy and allow us to digest food as needed and bolster our immune system.
Myth 2: 'It’s just a virus.'
A phrase I hear commonly, and think is a complete misconception. Viruses are just as significant as bacterial infections. If you have ever had the Flu (Influenza Virus), you will know it can make you feel as bad, if not worse, than when you’ve had a bacterial chest infection. Never underestimate a virus!
Myth 3: Antibiotics will make you feel better or fix your cold
Antibiotics are amazing medicines that are often taken for granted. They help to kill bacteria and bacteria only. They will have no impact on a common cold or a sore throat, as these are typically caused by viruses. If you do get better after taking them, it's simply because after one week most infections have cleared – it will have absolutely nothing to do with taking the antibiotics.
Myth 4: The 'Five-Second Rule'
Whether dropping food on the floor and eating it within five seconds is safe or not safe is a question of much debate. We have all done it before, and most of us are here to tell the tale. So, it begs the question, 'is it safe to do so'? If food is visibly covered in dirt, I would avoid eating it at all costs, however, a momentary drop on your recently cleaned kitchen floor may be OK. Remember, germs are invisible, so we really have no idea what we are exposing ourselves to. Shoes are covered in dog poo, urine from toilet floors, germs from inside and out, so when something drops on the floor, it's exposed to a whole host of germs: think twice before eating things from the floor.
Myth 5: You can eat food after the 'best before' date
This is true! The 'best before' date is a confusing little date, that tells you when you a recommended date that the food you have will be at its absolute best. After this, it is considered as less desirable to eat, but may still be perfectly safe. Do not confuse this with a 'use by' date. It may be unsafe to consume food after this date.
And those health questions we'd all love to know the answer to...
1. How often should you really be washing your hands, are there particular times or places where you absolutely MUST wash your hands?
It is very easy to become obsessed with hand washing and cleanliness. There are germs everywhere. However, there are certainly circumstances in which I would suggest you must wash your hands:
- After getting off the tube, or other public transport
The tube is a hive of germ activity! Whilst you can ensure your own cleanliness, you cannot guarantee others are equally hygienic. So when holding the rail on your commute to work, consider how many other hands, coughs and sneezes you may have been exposed to.
- Before Meals
Before you tuck into your morning breakfast or lunch I would suggest washing your hands with soap and water before eating. Many surfaces you touch may be covered in invisible bacteria so wash them off before tucking into your meals.
It amazes me daily how many people exit the toilet without washing their hands. Please don’t do this! Diarrhoeal illnesses are transmitted by spores, you wipe your bottom, shake someone's hand and suddenly the whole office comes down with diarrhoea and vomiting.
2. Can germs ever be good for you?
So, now that I have adequately scared you about germs, I will backtrack slightly. Exposure to germs is normal, we cannot realistically avoid them all. That said, we don’t need to. Our bodies are well-oiled machine with a powerful immune system ticking away in the background. When we are exposed to germs, our immune system helps to decide if they are harmful or not and fights off the ones that are. This helps us to develop natural immunity, helping us to prevent illness and infections when we are exposed to the same germs again. The truth is we will get sick from time to time, and we need some exposure to germs, so our immune system can develop. Those coughs, colds and sneezes you had as a child are the reason you can shake off most infections in a few days as an adult.
3. Are there particular age groups that are more vulnerable to germs?
It's no surprise that babies are more vulnerable to infections. Most of their immunity is passed on from mother baby. However, they have not been exposed to the multitude of germs that lurk in the big wide world. As such, it takes them time to develop their own immunity. Childhood immunisations are absolutely essential to help protect them from some of the most dangerous, preventable infections. As we age, our immune system also weakens, and so the very elderly are also more vulnerable.
4. Is there a perfect balance for how much bacteria your body can be exposed to?
The simple answer is no. It is impossible to measure a perfect balance. What we do know, is that we should protect ourselves against bacteria and viruses that cause severe illness, through hygiene measures, vaccinations and not overusing antibiotics, so they are available to treat us when we need them.
5. What should you do to prevent yourself from getting ill?
My three very simple tips to keeping well are as follows:
- Eat well and look after your body. Good health helps to maintain a healthy immune system.
- Simple Hygiene: Washing your hands after using the toilet and before eating will prevent the transmission of lots of unsanitary germs. Antibacterial hand gels can help where soap and water aren’t readily available, but remember, they will not kill the germs that can cause diarrhoea and vomiting illnesses.
- Coughs and sneezes spread diseases: please cover your mouth.
Dr Daniel Fenton is Clinical Director at London Doctors Clinic.