Every year consumers - especially seniors - are urged to get a flu shot to guard against the seasonal virus. But these vaccinations can have a spotty record when it comes to preventing disease.
The vaccine for the 2012-13 flu season didn't cover a couple of the strains that actually appeared, reducing its effectiveness. To improve your chances of avoiding illness, health experts suggest a simple precaution - keep your hands clean.
"Hands usually contain anywhere from two to 10 million bacteria," said Barry Michaels, who has over 30 years of experience in infectious disease prevention and who writes a hand hygiene blog for Deb USA, a make of hand hygiene products.
And that's just normal, everyday hands. Really dirty hands may contain up to 60 million bacteria.
"Hands play an important role in transmission of pathogens in many types of environments, such as food preparation, healthcare, at work and in public places like schools, theaters, sports events and the home. Each year tens of thousands of people die in the U.S. alone due to hand transmission of human pathogens.
Flu germs, in particular, are easily spread through hand contact. The supermarket can be germ central.
Let's say a shopper is suffering from the flu, or is carrying the germs and doesn't know it. They arrive at the store and pick up a grocery cart and begin pushing it around the store as they shop. When they are finished, a healthy shopper arrives and takes the cart from the rack.
The healthy person's hands are holding the same part of the cart held by the germ-carrying shopper. They load their groceries in the car, take them home and put them away.
Unless they clean their hands first, they can spread the flu germs to the food as they put it away and, if they eat something with their hands, they introduce the germs into their body. That's why most supermarkets now have a dispenser for moist antiseptic wipes. It's a good idea to take one and thoroughly clean your hands on the way out of the store.
"Sanitizers should be used when hands are not visibly soiled or when soap and water is not available," Michaels said.
What kind of commercially-available sanitizers are best? Michaels says liquids are impractical, wipes slide over the skin and leave a film of antimicrobial liquid, while gels are usually not as effective as a foam. Foams, he says, deliver around 5,000 bubbles that result in an exploding cascade lasting between 15 and 30 seconds.
But washing with soap and water is the basic building block of good hand hygiene. It doesn't require you to be obsessive/compulsive about it, but there is a right way to do it. Michaels says good hand hygiene is particularly important for seniors.
"Hand hygiene is the act of removing or killing potentially harmful microorganisms on hands, preventing transmission of frank and opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms," he said. "They can be removed from hands by washing with soap where surfactants make water wetter, and latch on to dirt or soils containing the microorganism or the microorganism itself. Friction during rinsing and drying removes any remaining transient bacteria of concern with the rinsing process, hopefully washing harmful microorganisms down the drain."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infections. Running your hands under the water for a few seconds, however, isn't enough. Here's how the CDC recommends you wash and dry your hands: