While reading one of my favorite columns in The New York Times—Tara Parker Pope’s invaluable “Well Blog”—I came across some important information on fighting germs, always useful during cold and flu season. It turns out that we don’t have to worry about using hot water when we wash our hands. I had always turned the water to just below scalding, thinking I was wiping out more germs that way. But the high water temp that would be needed to kill the germs would also burn our skin. Best to use tepid water—though not cold water since it fails to remove bacteria-harboring oils. What matters most is time spent actually washing. They say a good rule of thumb is to wash for the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song. Also, be careful to wash the entire hand–between the fingers, on top, and so on. Those pesky germs can travel around.
Another fact (one which we all know by now, but for some reason cannot get our minds around): green snot does not a bacterial infection signify. A definitive study on the subject was conducted all the way back in 1984, when a large group of sick kids was divided up and given either antibiotics or a placebo. There was no difference in recovery rates among the two groups. Other studies have since backed up these findings. (Anahad O’Connor, “Really?” NYT 10/5/09). It turns out that the body’s response to both bacterial and viral respiratory infections is the same: ramp up mucus production to carry away the offending germs, then turn that mucus white, yellow or green.
We are all familiar by now with serious problem that has developed by the overuse of antibiotics. Thanks to Darwinian selection, bacterial strains have emerged that are resistant to our crop of drugs. MRSA, C.diff and other so-called “super bugs” are on the rise, killing tens of thousands annually. That’s worth thinking about the next time you feel tempted to run to your doctor for a quick script for a Z-pack. God forbid, someone you know and love may be in that statistic some day.
Consider also the way antibiotics trash your system. I can only speak from personal experience, and not to gross anyone out, but whenever I have taken antibiotics, I have ended up with bad cases of either constipation or diarrhea and with yeast infections. On top of which, by killing off the friendly bacteria and flora that maintain a healthy bowel ecology, antibiotics themselves compromise the immune system. This isn’t helpful when you’re fighting off a virus, and the vast majority of colds are viral.
Obviously, take them if you need them–they are a medical miracle when used correctly. Case in point. When my oldest child was 10 months old, I contracted a severe case of pneumonia that left me hospitalized. I was so sick and so weak by the time I was admitted, that my husband later revealed that he was not sure I would pull through. Within 24 hours of receiving massive doses of IV antibiotics, however, my prognosis had completely reversed itself. I remained weak and sick, and it took a full six weeks to regain my energy, but it was a close call that would’ve ended tragically if not for antibiotics.
My story is all the more reason to take care in the use of these drugs and to think twice about asking for them. Avoid, too, those doctors who prescribe antibiotics for every little thing. Call them on it! And when you travel, don’t toss that Z-pack into your case like it’s a bottle of Tums or Tylenol. Are you really medically competent to determine if your condition is bacterial? I’m not. That can only truly be ascertained with blood work and a microscope.