On a trip to London last week I developed the mother of all head colds within a few hours of arriving. Now it could have something to do with the fact that I was very tired embarking on this trip in the first place, as much had to be done before I left. Lacking in sleep and following on the heels of a very busy week where my eating patterns were all over the place, it is probably not too surprising that my immune system was only functioning down around my ankles. It was just a simple head cold and although uncomfortable and relatively unpleasant it wasn’t anything too serious. I wondered where on earth I had picked it up and then realised the extraordinary amount of human contact I had had within 24 hours when compared to the same time period of an ordinary day.

For most of us life is pretty much the same on a day to day basis. You are around the same family members and home environment, the same work colleagues and work places, in your car, perhaps the odd shop, café or restaurant and then home again to a safe and familiar environment again. On most out of the country trips you are in at least two airports, unfamiliar train or bus stations, taxi cabs, hotels and many more shops and restaurants than you would normally come into contact with in any given week. When you count up the potential for meeting germs it is a wonder that anyone goes anywhere. Taken to its extreme this is what leads to the obsessive compulsive disorder of fear of germs.


You’ve no doubt heard about people that continuously scrub their hands for fear of picking up anything or, as in the case of one man I know, he refuses to shake anyone’s hand. He always gives the most ungracious excuse of being ‘germ phobic’, considering it a recognisable disability! Instead of shaking your hand he will create a fist expecting you to do the same and then you will both gently touch fists as a way of greeting. I always felt this to be a little silly but who am I to mess with anyone’s personal psychosis. However my attitude to this man’s neurosis is beginning to change. While in the UK yet another study emerged on hand washing, or should I say the lack of it, amongst the general public. It is astonishing that given the amount of column inches and airtime dedicated to the fact that hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases people still don’t do it enough. It is probably one of the easiest techniques in the world to learn and is quite a pleasurable experience so what is wrong with us that we don’t like to do it?

Latest study

This latest study was carried out in the toilets of a service station at an undisclosed location along a motorway in England. The survey takers even installed an electronic flashing sign that said “Washing hands with soap avoids disease”. This wasn’t any bland or faded poster, but a flashing sign! Obviously they didn’t install cameras but they did measure the soap usage on the dispensers with sensors and when compared with the number of people that entered the washrooms in the same time period it became depressingly obvious that not everyone enjoyed a good scrub after a trip to the loo. Interestingly a similar study was done in the States only this time it was carried out at a very high brow affair with many of the so called elite of a particular area. The results were equally damming suggesting that even the rich and highly educated often neglect this simplest form of health protection.

Another recent study in the UK, carried out on Global Handwashing Day last month (I wasn’t even aware of it to be honest), saw experts randomly swab test commuters hands in the major cities like London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle. The results were disturbing to say the least. More than one in four had faecal matter on their hands and 30% of women, normally considered to be the food preparers and child carers, came out with ‘dirty’ hands. Now they may not have looked that dirty, but that’s the thing about germs, the little buggers are generally invisible to the human eye and germs picked up in a toilet can live for up to two hours on the skin. It really puts you off your food, doesn’t it?

Obviously these results came from major cities where there are greater populations and more potential for dirt but wouldn’t it be interesting to do such a random test on the streets of Waterford. Something else that is interesting about all the hand washing surveys that have been carried out is that most people when asked if they wash their hands regularly will reply ‘Yes’. Tests have proven that often up to 50% are lying. This tells us something else entirely; people KNOW they should wash their hands but for some reason when faced with a sink they just can’t be bothered. It’s not like we live in some bizarre country where sanitation is poor. Generally in the western world where there is a toilet there will be a sink beside it!

Hands on facts!

Here are the facts, while we may not believe that our hands have anything to do with us getting sick they do. The average hand is home to 150 species of bacteria and women’s hands were found to have 50 per cent more varieties than men due to skin acidity and hormones. The majority of these organisms are harmless but some are not, causing gastronenteritis resulting in vomiting and diarrohoea, MRSA and even E. coli. Pathogens on dirty hands cause most common colds and the average child misses at least three days of school a year due to such communicable illnesses and similar figures are found to account for absenteeism in the workplace. Maybe it would be an idea for schools and workplaces to put hand sanitising gels on the walls like they do in hospitals. However you can have all the hand sanitisers in the world alongside all the posters, the adverts, the flashing signs and the sinks with running water and soap but if people don’t use them it’s pointless. I have actually watched people in WRH walk through the doors of the hospital and totally ignore the hand gels. Perhaps some of these people have their own personal hand sanitiser and have just applied it, but even one rouge pair of dirty hands in a hospital could cause damage. Indeed there is one statistic that says one million lives could be saved each year if everyone in the world washed their hands with soap!

There is an interesting theory offered as to why we don’t always feel the need to wash our hands after a trip to the bathroom and that is that these days our bathrooms are so clean that we assume we are as well. Well we are not and the sooner we all wake up to that fact the better. If there is just one person in the workplace who neglects to wash their hands coming from the bathroom and those germs live for up to two hours the consequences are horrible. Think of a typical scenario of someone leaving a toilet, they then pop to the kitchen to turn on the kettle, they rummage through a cutlery drawer to get a spoon, they might even make a second cup of coffee for a colleague, they stop by reception on the way back to their desks laying their hands on it, they meet someone on the way and shake their hands, they get back to their desk and use a keyboard or pick up a phone, maybe they have spilled some of that coffee on the way and have to lick their fingers! Maybe you work beside this person and ask to borrow a pen or a stapler and they obligingly hand it to you! This has all happened within fifteen minutes of their trip to the bathroom, let alone two hours. How many of the germs have been transferred all over the place? It’s the stuff of horror movies and schools and even our homes are not much better.

Worth the effort

Look it’s not difficult and it takes less than a minute to wash and dry your hands. If it even saves you from a winter cold wouldn’t it be worth it? Although I washed my hands after trips to the loo last Monday there were several other instances during the day when perhaps I should have just stopped and thought about it. The tragedy is that I actually had a small bottle of hand sanitiser in my handbag but didn’t use it. I definitely picked something up on my trip and quite frankly perhaps it’s my own fault. Without becoming paranoid I’ll definitely be more careful in future.