Healthy habits keep you well

June 1, 2004
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, have begun an instructional effort designed to use individual behavioral changes to prevent infection.

Charles John Palenik, MS, PhD, MBA

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, have begun an instructional effort designed to use individual behavioral changes to prevent infection. The project is directed toward general audiences. "Healthy Habits to Stop Germs" can protect everyone from infection or spreading germs at home, school, or work. Simple actions, such as covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and cleaning your hands often, can stop germs, prevent illness, and reduce sick days. Use the CDC Web site — /home_work_school.htm — as a resource for tips, tools, and facts.

"Healthy Habits" is part of a larger wintertime initiative designed to reduce the incidence of colds and influenza and to identify diseases caused by bacteria and those caused by viruses. Most wintertime maladies have viral etiologies, including colds, influenza, most coughs, bronchitis, and sore throats, save those resulting from strep.

Differentiation of infections could reduce the demand for antibiotics, which are more commonly reserved for bacterial infections. Antibiotics do not cure viral infections, make people feel better, or prevent someone from getting a viral infection. Also, overuse of antibiotics can result in changes in target microorganisms, which can reduce or even eliminate the effectiveness of drug therapy.

How can you avoid antibiotic-resistant infections? A good start is to speak with your health care provider. Ask if a drug is likely to be effective in treating your illness; do not demand an antibiotic when your provider determines it is not appropriate; and, ask what else you can do to help relieve your symptoms.

The CDC indicate that the primary manner through which colds and flu are spread from person to person is respiratory droplets. The process is called "droplet spread." Droplets released by a cough or sneeze of an infected person move through the air and deposit on the mucous membranes of people nearby. Sometimes germs also can be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets from another person on a surface and then touches his or her eyes, mouth, or nose before handwashing. Some viruses and bacteria can exist for two or more hours on inert environmental surfaces.

There are three simple methods to stop the spread of germs. Persons need to cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing; clean their hands often; and, remind others to practice healthy habits.

It is best to cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away. Cover your mouth and nose with your hands when no tissue is available. Then, thoroughly clean your hands. Unfortunately, most of us do not wash our hands adequately. Washing with soap and warm water requires 15 to 20 seconds of active scrubbing. This is about the same amount of time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.

Alcohol-based hand wipes or gels are now commonly available. Water is not needed for such sanitizers to work; the alcohol kills the germs present. The alcohol-based hand rubs can be used for routine asepsis and surgical hand hygiene, and should be used only on hands that are not visibly soiled. Always follow manufacturer's recommendations concerning the amount to use and the method of application.

The flu is an important disease that can be limited through healthy habits. Each winter, flu epidemics affect 10 to 20 percent of the American population and are associated with 36,000 deaths and 114,000 hospitalizations. More than 90 percent of the deaths involve people 65 years and older. Nevertheless, 50 percent of infections requiring a stay in the hospital include people under age 65. Nearly 22,000,000 school days are lost each year to respiratory infections in the United States. The economic impact of a severe domestic flu epidemic can approach $15 billion.

The CDC offer a great deal of information about handwashing and other healthy habits that can limit spread of the flu, the common cold, and other illnesses such as hepatitis A, meningitis, and infectious diarrhea ( Activities simple to learn and simple to perform can affect great change.

OSAP, the Organization for Safety & Asepsis Procedures, is dentistry's prime source for evidence-based information on infection control and prevention and human safety and health. More information is available at

Dr. Charles John Palenik is an assistant director of Infection Control Research and Services at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. Dr. Palenik has authored numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs, and is the co-author of the popular Infection Control and Management of Hazardous Materials for the Dental Team. He serves on the Executive Board of OSAP, dentistry's resource for infection control and safety.Questions about this article or any infection-control issue may be directed to [email protected].

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