As the world-wide pandemic has demonstrated, few people understand how viruses can be spread or prevented. As I explained in my previous post (What exactly is a virus?), a virus is a protein- coated genome that invades cells then reproduces by replicating itself inside them. As it spreads throughout its host, symptoms of the damage worsen. Though most people seem to grasp the general concept that germs live on surfaces then get into their body, they don’t seem to realize the many ways and means a virus can be physically transferred. Any awareness will help prevent outbreaks in families, schools, offices, cities etc.
Assessing risk of contamination and exposure isn’t as simple as it may seem because there are multiple factors to take into consideration, which include:
- strain variation (which version/ mutation of the virus)
- concentration (whether the virus was diluted at all)
- suspending medium (in what substance was the virus when it was developed/ tested)
- surface type (on what material was the virus)
- mode of transfer (how the virus was passed)
- temperature (how hot or cold the virus’ environment must be to weaken or kill it varies)
- relative humidity (water vapor in the air/ vaporized contaminated liquid will disperse the virus)
- method of testing (accuracy depends upon both administration of the test and interpretation of results by personnel; reliability depends upon both the inventor and the manufacturer of the test)
So, rather than trying to figure out how likely you think you are to be exposed to a virus, it’s better to focus on slowing/ preventing the transmission of any that could be around. Exposure can occur via inhalation (dispersed by air through breathing, sneezing, coughing, or during aerosol- generating medical procedures), contact with a mucus membrane (areas that produce fluid, such as eyes, ears, inner nose, inner mouth, lip, vagina, the urethral opening and the anus), skin contact (especially with a contaminated surface, with another person’s contaminated hand or bodily fluid, such as blood, mucus, or saliva), or ingestion (eating, and/or drinking contaminated a substance, inhalation, skin absorption). This is why you should ALWAYS thoroughly wash your produce after you get home from buying groceries. (Timely rinsing will also prevent fruit flies from hatching and breeding.)
When I taught school, my class wiped down all major surfaces in the classroom (e.g. desktops) about once per week with chemical-saturated disinfecting wipes. The teacher from the classroom across the hall noticed our ritual and scoffed– right in our faces. Within a month she began to notice the significant difference in absences due to illness (her students fell ill regularly while ours were hardly ever sick). Shortly thereafter she began to incorporate disinfection time into her class’ schedule. Disinfecting wipes are also good for cleaning light switches, door knobs, TV remotes, appliance handles, cell phones, computer keyboards, car steering wheels and shopping cart/ basket handles. However, the downsides of using chemicals are reactions due to chemical sensitivity (both from contact with the ingredients from which any synthetic versions of chemicals are derived and from the smell– see my previous post, the culprit right under your nose), excessive waste from discarded wipes (which aren’t safe to flush), not to mention the tendency for the added alcohol to evaporate.
Iodine as a remedy was new to me; I came across a mention of it and waffled about whether it was worth researching… whoa! It’s efficacy has been tested and re-proven ten-fold! In 1945, J.D. Stone and Sir McFarland Burnet (who later went on to win a Nobel Prize for his Clonal Selection Theory) demonstrated the efficacy of iodine by placing some on mice’s snouts then exposing them to lethal doses of Influenza, which they consequently survived. I learned from a medical literature review (of 29 sources) by Dr. David Derry, MD & PhD that “Iodine is the most effective broad-spectrum antiseptic with low toxicity. Iodine has very high germicidal activity, and no organism develops resistance to iodine.” Given the wide variety of Povidone-Iodine products available at any local drugstore, it’s surprising more people don’t keep it at home among their first aid/ hygiene products. A systematic review of clinic trials of iodine used for wound care found that “The antiseptic effect of iodine is not inferior to that of other (antiseptic) agents and does not impair wound healing. Hence, iodine deserves to retain its place among the modern antiseptic agents.” Another alternative to chemical disinfectants, is essential oils. I won’t rehash what I’ve already covered in my previous post, Good Olfaction but will echo the declaration that it “deserves to retain its place among the modern antiseptic agents.” Moreover, essential oils can be added to water and diffused as vapor or added to alcohol
Since my aforementioned classroom had its own sink and bathroom in the back, I bought hand soap in a variety of scents and colors to entice the students to wash their hands more often and for a longer period of time. To convince a little boy, to whom I was a nanny to adequately wash his hands, I likened it to a battle, in which he was crushing the enemy germs into his palms, grinding and smashing the poisonous soap right onto those sickness-delivery monsters. If only more children were taught to use proper hand washing techniques, which they could continue into adulthood! The United States’ Center for Disease Control and the Mayo Clinic recommend lathering both the front and back of your hands and wrists, plus in between your fingers with soap then rubbing for 20 seconds, i.e. the duration of the song, “Happy Birthday” sung twice. The combination of soap and vigorous scrubbing will kill viruses; merely splashing water, gently smearing soap around, or rubbing for less than the full 20 seconds won’t accomplish anything beyond removing loose debris from the surface of your skin.
The most important times to wash your hands are:
- emptying the dishwasher/ putting away dry dishes
- preparing food (e.g. chopping veggies)/ cooking
- getting out dishes/ utensils to eat or drink
- eating/ drinking, opening candy/ gum
- applying lotion/ ointment, makeup
- treating a cut/ scrape/ burn, applying a bandage
- putting in contact lenses
- using the bathroom
- helping someone else (toddler, disabled, elderly) use the bathroom
- changing a diaper or feminine hygiene product
- discarding a soiled diaper or feminine hygiene product
- collecting/ discarding animal feces
- cleaning a pet cage/ crate
- emptying the trash
- handling dirty laundry/ loading the washing machine
- blowing your nose or wiping someone else’s (toddler, disabled, elderly) nose
- coughing/ sneezing
- treating a cut/ scrape/ burn, applying a bandage
Moreover, stop unnecessarily touching surfaces. If you run out of gloves, pull your hand up into your sleeve or wrap it in a tissue to grasp door handles and type on keypads. Use your elbow to press elevator buttons. Bring your own pen to doctor appointments and pharmacy visits or wrap their’s in a tissue before signing with it. If you must share sunscreen or hand sanitizer, squirt it into the other person’s hand rather than passing the container back and forth. Don’t share eye drops, lip balm or lipstick. Ever.
The hardest thing to remember: don’t touch your face. Unless you’ve ever injured a hand that was wrapped in a bulky bandage and/or had a eye procedure, you don’t realize how often you do it. Besides resting your head/ chin in your hands, it’s easy to absent-mindedly adjust your glasses, rub your nose as a nervous habit (many people who wear glasses do this all the time without realizing it), rub your face in frustration, bite your fingernails/ cuticles, or rub your eyes. Use a cloth to wash your face; wrap your finger/ hand in a tissue to clean the corners of your eyes and to wipe your nose; grasp the sides (arms/ endpieces) of the frame to re-position your glasses. Seriously– don’t touch your face. Cough into the crook of your arm if you have to cough or sneeze; otherwise, use a tissue.
It’s also helpful to wear protective gear, such as (plastic/ rubber/ latex/ nitrile) gloves and/or a mask that covers BOTH your nose and mouth. Ideally, a mask’s fabric is thick enough to filter out small particulate, not just visible dust and large spores. (See my previous post for answers to FAQs about the one I use.) Keep in mind that studies have found the influenza virus can stay airborne for up to three hours after a patient passes through an emergency room/ department! Furthermore, multiple studies from 2019 found that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was detectable for up to 3 hours in aerosols, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. Conclusive research is needed on how exactly long a virus can linger on fabric but studies show that masks can carry a virus and therefore should be swapped for new/ clean ones on a regular basis (i.e. obviously not right in the middle of a medical procedure). It’s safe to apply this principle to clothing, i.e. don’t wear potentially contaminated clothes to bed or around the house after returning from the ER/ doctor’s appointment/ airport.
All these measures are a simple matter of common sense but it took a pandemic for everyone to start taking them seriously. Hopefully, like previous generations (e.g. my grandmother) that carried over tips and tricks they learned during The Great Depression, the habits we acquire during this time will stay with us. But keep in mind there is no single fail-safe solution. Preventing the spread of viruses is two-fold: decontaminate your surrounding environment AND keep your body healthy enough to fight off whatever surface germs remain. In my next post, I’ll explain how to stop viruses from spreading from the inside.