Sanitizers Give the Upper Hand Against Colds

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers offer a low-cost, low-tech way to fight viruses.

October 16, 2008, 3:20 PM

Dec. 5, 2007 — -- From kindergarten through middle and high school, many schools and classrooms now have an abundant supply of donated liquid hand sanitizers.

These antiseptic gels are quickly becoming an additional level of protection between students and ubiquitous viruses, which, especially during the wintertime cold and flu season, are present on a variety of common surfaces.

Even the kids seem to notice a difference.

"Since we starting using liquid hand sanitizer in our school, my classmates seem to be healthier, with fewer kids getting colds," said Dylan, a seventh grader at East Side Middle School in New York City.

And in many ways, these sanitizers offer a low-cost, low-tech solution to a common, potentially costly seasonal problem.

Hand sanitizers are gaining popularity, as they are portable, easy to use and perfect for places where there is no faucet and sink available for hand washing, such as in the subway or on a train. "Purell" is no longer just a product name; like Xerox and Windex, it has become a verb as well, describing the liquid sanitization of our hands.

Thus far, several studies over the past few years have suggested that hand sanitizers do limit the spread of germs. In a September 2005 study in the journal Pediatrics, researchers showed that families who used alcohol-based gels had a 59 percent lower rate of gastrointestinal illnesses -- which cause diarrhea and vomiting -- caused by germs spread from one family member to another.

Other research has focused more on the germs that cause common colds and the flu, tracking rates of school absenteeism among kids whose families use the products.

As for my New York City based allergy practice, I have personally observed that among my employees and co-workers who aggressively use gel-based alcohol sanitizers, there has been a change in successfully avoiding the vicious cycle of recurrent cold-like infections. The goal is to reduce transmission of a variety of viruses, including the common cold as well as gastrointestinal infections.

Moreover, many local health departments as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended alcohol-based liquid gels over using soap and water, as long as your hands are not very soiled.

One caveat: It is important to check the bottle for the level of alcohol in a sanitizer.

It is generally thought that it should contain at least 60 percent alcohol -- even better if the concentration is greater than 90 percent. Apparently, less potent solutions are not very helpful in killing the viruses that cause many household infections.

Of course, plain old soap and water is just fine if it's available. But this is not always the case when it comes to our busy lives -- especially bearing in mind that we will be taking on those pesky germs at home, school and work.

Nowadays, many different approaches are used in the fight against germs. We have "foam based" disinfectants, antibacterial soaps, cleaning wipes and aerosolized disinfectants. In a more vigorous environment, especially in health care or medical settings, iodine-based and other chemical disinfectants are frequently utilized for more robust infection-busting capability.

So now for the final question: Can hand sanitizers save you completely from cold and flu? The answer, most likely, is no. But just like conscientious hand washing, avoiding sick co-workers and maintaining a healthy diet may certainly help keep you well this holiday season.

Dr. Clifford Bassett is vice chair of the Public Education Committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. He is also an assistant clinical professor of medicine and otolaryngology at the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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