Hands -- a gateway to germs

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Germs can make life a heck of a lot tougher. 

Germs are simply undesired bacteria, viruses, protozoans and parasites. They're unavoidable in everyday life. In fact, our immune system needs to be kept on its toes by fighting small battles with germs to keep in good fitness. Some experts believe too sterile of an environment is a bad thing, possibly causing the immune system to launch attacks against unharmful invaders such as dust and pollen.

Avoiding certain strains of germs is paramount to keeping healthy. Reducing contact with disease-causing or pathogenic organisms is the key. Many pathogenic bacteria and viruses must be introduced to the body in significant enough amounts to do harm. Typically, counts in the tens of thousands are required for some of these bugs to do harm. But there are some germs that are so dangerous only a few hundred can make you sick. These germs are highly potent, though they are relatively rare.

What can someone do to avoid these germs and stay healthy a longer percentage of time? It starts with a mind-set. Think of how you interact with your environment. Anything you touch, breathe or eat can potentially make you sick. You can think in terms of exposure to public places where many people can exchange germs. Think door handles, keyboards, gasoline pumps, elevator buttons, security keypads, shopping carts, escalator handrails and public restrooms. A desk can actually harbor more germs than a bathroom stall.

To protect yourself, think hands. Hands are generally how you manipulate the world around you. They come into contact with all kinds of surfaces. They harbor their own bacteria. Your hands routinely touch your mouth, nose and eyes. Would you kiss a door handle at the mall? You might be, indirectly, if you touch it with your hands then touch your lips. 

The link in the disease transmission process needs to be broken. There are two simple ways to reduce germ exposure: a barrier and washing your hands.

A barrier is any material placed between you and a potential pathogen. This can be a simple tissue paper held between your dry hands and a door handle. Your physician will often wear gloves as a barrier.

Washing your hands is very effective and costs next to nothing. Using warm water first, wet your hands then lather up for at least 15 seconds with soap. No need to go overboard with special antibacterial soaps here. After you've rinsed your hands, grab a paper towel and turn off the faucet with a dry paper towel -- if it is not an automatic faucet.

When it is inconvenient to wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Sanitizing hand-wipes work great too. They're very useful to keep in your car for a quick wipe after using the gas pump or to wipe down a shopping cart handle if your favorite market does not already make them available. Wipes are great to use if your hands have visible soil when a sink is not nearby.

So, keep in mind how you interact with your environment and think, "hands." No need to be a germophobe like a well-known fictional detective. Rather, focus on reducing your exposure to germs and you will greatly reduce your chances of getting sick.