Wash hands in warm or cold water

November 15, 2007|By Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon

With flu season and the MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) staph infection upon us, we are urged to wash our hands frequently, usually "with warm, soapy water." My memories of Bacteriology 101 aren't clear, but I can't recall that warm water kills anything. Soapsuds, on the other hand, do carry nasty things away. Is there any science behind the "warm water" suggestion?

You are absolutely right that warm water is no more effective than cold for removing germs. Soap and water don't kill germs, but only wash them off the surface of the skin.

If we had to guess, we would venture that it is far more pleasant to stick your hands in warm water than ice-cold water. The longer you wash and rinse, the more effective the process. Sing the alphabet song as you wash to get the timing right.

As it is, few people wash their hands as often as they should (after using the bathroom, before eating, after coughing or sneezing and so on).

This is a particularly serious problem in hospitals, where it is often difficult to get health care workers of all kinds to wash hands between seeing patients. A worker who fails to wash can transfer germs from one patient to the next.

I nearly killed myself taking potassium on my own a few years ago. It can build up in your body and eventually stop your heart. Consult your doctor about the proper dosage before starting.

Potassium is one of those "Goldilocks" minerals -- both too little and too much can be deadly. A physician should use a blood test to monitor anyone who takes a potassium supplement, whether it is prescription or over-the-counter.

I have had a problem with underarm odor for the past several months. It occurs even when I am not active. I use an antibacterial soap and have increased the strength of my antiperspirants. My doctor has no answers. Please give me a natural solution to this and explain why it is occurring.

We can't tell you why this is happening, but we might have a possible solution. Milk of magnesia is sold as a laxative, but readers of this column have suggested applying it to armpits as a gentle deodorant. We have tried it ourselves and found that it reduces odor surprisingly well. Please let us know whether it helps you.

When the skin on my fingertips cracks open, the splits are painful and take a long time to heal. I went to a dermatologist for a series of different pills and lotions, but nothing has worked.

This problem seems to happen more in the winter months. What can you suggest?

Dermatologists sometimes recommend moisturizers, "the greasier the better." By these standards, plain petroleum jelly should work great. But many readers tell us that Vicks VapoRub is especially helpful against splitting skin on the fingertips. The herbal oils in the petrolatum base seem to add a little extra power.

Another great greasy remedy for cracked fingertips is A&D Ointment. This contains vitamins A and D in a petrolatum base and seems to help fingertips heal faster.

A couple of other old-fashioned approaches to this problem include Bag Balm (again, this uses petrolatum as the base) or Udder Cream (which sponsors our radio show). Both products were originally designed to keep cows' udders from chapping in cold weather. If you apply any of these moisturizers at night, wear light cotton gloves. They'll keep the sheets from getting too greasy.

One last approach readers have recommended is sealing the cracks with instant glue. A liquid-bandage product from Band-Aid is formulated for skin and less likely to be irritating than a household adhesive.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or e-mail them via their Web site: peoplespharmacy.com.

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