Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When Cards and Germs Are Wild | Colds and Flu

Poker chips can harbor germs 
No matter what version of poker you play, it’s a game where bluffers prosper. But some scientists have found that money isn’t the only thing people put to chance when they gather around the card table.

If you play the game regularly, you are likely to win an opponent’s achy, oozing cold. In fact, the sniffles are a more sure bet than going home with the most chips.

Lucky you. "Let’s say you’re sick, you cough into your hands, you pick up the cards and you shuffle and deal," says Dr. Will Sawyer, of Cincinnati who has devoted his career to spreading the gospel of proper hand washing.

"Chances are, [germs] from your cough are now on those cards. And if someone picks up a card and they have an itch and they put their finger in their eyes, nose or mouth, they’re probably going to be sick the next day."

A group of scientists from the University of Wisconsin in Madison proved as much. They placed men with severe colds alongside a group of perfectly healthy men, and had the group play poker for 12 hours. Twelve of 18 healthy men contracted colds just by breathing the air and touching their faces and the poker game pieces. Chalk it up as an underside to the World Series of Poker and other versions of the mega-popular Texas Hold ’em Tournaments.

Dr. Sawyer is unsurprised. "The science is clear on this," he says. "Respiratory illness spreads through direct contact and by floating through the air, but the [germs] only float three feet. So, the biggest problem here is really our hands. We are just giving the colds to ourselves."

Americans suffer 1 billion colds annually, according to the National Institutes of Health. That’s one reason why Dec. 3-9 has been deemed National Hand-Washing Awareness Week.

In the case of hand washing, Americans do not seem to be particularly adept. Brian Sansoni is the spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), a nonprofit trade organization that educates consumers about cleaning and hygiene products.

"Every couple of years, we issue a clean hands report card, and we’re not doing as well as we should," says Sansoni. Last year, the SDA gave Americans a C-minus for their flawed hand hygiene: “Sixty-eight percent of Americans don’t wash their hands long enough to effectively remove germs and dislodge dirt, and 36 percent said they seldom or never wash their hands after coughing or sneezing.”

"From a public health standpoint, it is kind of disgusting and a little alarming that we don’t take even simple steps to keep our hands clean," says Sansoni.

For cold-free futures, Dr. Sawyer preaches what he calls respiratory etiquette combined with a few simple hand-washing rules. First, he recommends washing your hands before eating or whenever they’re dirty. Second, he discourages coughing or sneezing into your hands. (“Throw an elbow instead,” he says.) Finally, “Do not put your fingers into your eyes, nose or mouth.”

A fourth tip might be to direct your poker friends to this article.

If your hands are dirty without a sink in sight, use instant hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial wipes. Studies show that these hand-washing alternatives kill most—but not all—types of disease-causing bacteria. As a result, these products should be used when plain soap and water aren’t available, advises Dr. Sawyer.

So, the next time you sit down for a game of Friday night poker, remember: Your lucky royal flush may not be the most dangerous hand at the table. Wash up and wash often and chances are, you’ll never sniffle back phlegm or cough from a cold again. The power, after all, is in your squeaky-clean hands.

Written by: Bethany Lye is a New York-based writer who contributes to MSN Health & Fitness, Health Magazine and People Magazine. 
Pat F. Bass III, MD, MS, MPH is a board certified general internist and general pediatrician and an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at Louisiana State University Health Science Center- Shreveport in Shreveport, LA..P.H.


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