It’s that time of year again — leaves are beginning to fall, flu shots are getting administered, and the ‘bugs’ are starting to go around.
The Centres for Disease Control estimates that around 111 million work days will be lost in the US this flu season, which can start as early as October and last until May.
But there’s an easy way to avoid some of the nasty viruses and bacteria that spread when temperatures drop: stop shaking hands.
Reaching out to embrace a colleague’s hand is a transactional tradition that dates back thousands of years. But it’s also a bit like reaching for a Petri dish full of your co-worker’s ‘resident flora’ — microorganisms that stick with us all day long. Some of those bacteria are harmless, but there are also more dangerous ones, like the infection-breeding Staphylococcus bacteria and diarrhoea-inducing E. coli that can spread from palm to palm.
That’s especially true in hospitals, where infection rates have soared in recent years. Clinicians have even pushed for handshake-free zones around newborn babies due to their tiny, developing immune systems.
Out on city streets, things aren’t so clean either. Researchers in London took swabs from 50 people around the city to determine the average number of bacteria on commuter hands. Roughly one out of every three hands swabbed were contaminated with bacteria normally found in faeces.
Perhaps that’s why so many US presidents have been uneasy about the practice.
One of former President George W. Bush’s top tips to incoming President Obama was to always carry hand sanitizer, a trick Obama reportedly started using on the campaign trail. President Trump has called handshakes “barbaric,” and in his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback,” he wrote that he’d “often thought of taking out a series of newspaper ads encouraging the abolishment of the handshake.”
But not all handshakes have been found to be so risky.
A 2011 study of 5,209 college graduation handshakes only uncovered one pathogen transmitted onto a right hand.
Dr. David Bishai, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health = who led the study, told Business Insider that he couldn’t get more funding to research dirty hands after that because the grads were so squeaky clean.
“It was frustratingly difficult to culture viable staph, strep and coliforms off of the hands of deans and principals after graduations,” Bishai said in an email.
Bishai says the highest bacteria counts on our hands are found in the moist parts between the fingers and under the nails, which aren’t typically touched in a brief, professional handshake. Plus, Bishai says performing handshake after handshake, like professors do during a graduation ceremony, could actually help wipe off the pathogens that are acquired in a single swipe.
Regardless of how dirty our hands are, there are certainly cleaner ways to connect.
Biochemist Dave Whitworth from Aberystwyth University studied handshakes in his lab in 2014 and found that high five-ing cuts bacteria transmission in half, and fist bumping is even better — 10 times more bacteria get exchanged in a handshake than a fist bump.
But Whitworth’s not convinced that avoiding physical contact is all it takes to prevent getting sick this winter.
“If disease enters the workplace, its going to be difficult to avoid, even if you stop handshaking,” he wrote in a germ-free email to Business Insider, pointing out that viruses can spread to 40 to 60% of an entire building from a single doorknob in mere hours.
“Perhaps something to consider instead is banning sick colleagues from coming to work in the first place,” he said.
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