Many people, when they tell me their kid is getting sick with a cold, start with “he was outside yesterday without a coat or shoes, and now look at him!”, as if cold air and exposure gave him the illness. Many people believe that wind in the ears causes ear infections too.
Infections like colds, vomiting and diarrhea episodes, and fever episodes, are not from wind or cold air. These infections are caused by a virus. A virus is a crystal-shaped, microscopic chemical machine that is passed to the victim by another person. The sick person coughs a mass of cold viruses onto his hands, or get a diarrhea virus on her hands when changing baby. Later the dirty hand touches your hand or something your hand touches (a doorknob, faucet handle, counter top, etc.). Then you put your contaminated hand to your mouth and the virus gets into you. A day or two later, when the virus has grown enough in you, you start to have symptoms.
If you caught a cold virus, you start to cough and have a runny nose. If you have a stomach virus, you have vomiting and diarrhea. These are the ways a virus stay alive in the population- it gives you symptoms that turn you into a virus shedding machine. You spew the virus around you for others around to pick up and the virus’ s children live on in your fellow humans. Bystanders beware!
One of the great inventions of the 1800s was the idea of hand-washing and public health. Before then, one of every five infants died of an infection before they reached 12 months of age. Children and adults died more often of infections too. Armies, with their troops crammed together in camps, lost many more men from disease than battles.
Then science discovered that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Clean hands became popular. Cities and army camps started providing clean water and sewage management. Death rates from infection dropped dramatically. Many more lives have been saved by city sewer pipes than by antibiotics or vaccines. What better disease prevention could there be than moving massive amounts of germs away from where people live, eat, and drink?
Today the lessons are clear- wash your hands! Wash them after you go to the bathroom. Wash them before you eat. Wash them after you blow your nose, touch someone else, or touch a potentially dirty surface. We in medicine need to wash our hands before and after we touch every patient. As a pediatrician, I wade through a swamp of runny noses and diarrhea every day, yet rarely get sick myself- I wash my hands.
Unfortunately doctors and nurses have been notoriously bad at hand washing. My wife, a pediatric nurse, recalls being appalled at some surgeons who would go from bed to bed, changing dressings, cutting off dirty bandages, and never wash their hands or scissors in between. It has required an effort from the federal government to crack down on hand-washing in hospitals. Patients are now encouraged to ask their doctors and nurses to wash their hands. Signs are posted all over to remind medical workers of hand hygiene and the importance of wearing gloves. The efforts seem to be working- rates of infections passed around hospitals are coming down.
Therefore, thank your governments for clean water, city sewers, and hospital regulation. Then wash your hands.