It’s that time of year again.  The Holidays are upon us and people all over the world are scrambling to make the most out of the days ahead.  Shopping malls are jammed, airports are filled to the brim and a plethora of concerts, parties and events are set to welcome as many people as the four walls can manage.  In other places, families and friends are gathering and reuniting (some from great distances) to celebrate the festivities of the season.  And then there are the lovers and once strangers looking for that hanging mistletoe to share a common fondness.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

For germs…

I find it fascinating that in the course of our holiday activities, many fail to appreciate the rise in the number of opportunities that occur during this time.  There are so many issues to mention but getting into all of them would really turn the holidays sour. Still, I’d like to focus on a few here to demonstrate how our environment changes and how we need to have a better sense of our corporeal ecology to at least stem the tide of infection spread.

Population density:  There’s nothing like a crowd to maximize spread.  I’m not just talking germs here either.  Everything from the 12th man in football to the pitchfork and torch carrying townsfolk of Frankenstein fame have shown that when you have a crowd, things spread.  In terms of germs, infections spread best if healthy people happen to be within 3 feet of a sick individual, mostly due to coughing and sneezing.  And in a crowded environment, one sneeze can infect several people although perhaps not as many as 150! Still, imagine being in line next to a sick person or sitting beside one at a Christmas concert.  The potential for infection increases dramatically!  And until Tom Ford comes up with an incredibly fashionable N95 face mask, there’s little that can be done to prevent it.

Well, that’s not true.  The answer is easy: cover up if you’re sick!

We’ve all been told that we should cover our coughs and sneezes, particuarly with an elbow (or as I like to do, inside your shirt or jacket).  Thankfully, now there’s proof that this works!   Recently the Mythbusters showed that if you cover your sneeze with your elbow, then you are reducing the chance of spread.  It’s a great segment and one that I recommend everyone watches.

Of course, not everything the Mythbusters say happens to be everything it seems.  In that same episode, they showed that a sneeze and perhaps infection can travel as much as 17 feet.  While that is impressive, it doesn’t really add up in terms of infection spread.  The reason is that the concentration of bacteria and viruses in the spray at that distance most likely won’t be high enough to cause infection.

By the way, if you’re reading this and you are a Mythbuster, contact me and I’ll explain further.

While social distancing may not be particularly cordial, especially at this time of year, it’s a good rule to keep far enough away from a sick individual to keep your chances of infection down.  And if you are sick, keep your spray to yourself!

Close Contact: There are times, of course, when social distancing is not acceptable at all. Handshakes, embraces, kisses and intimate contacts all increase in number over the holidays and as a result, the likelihood of infection spread.  There’s ample evidence to suggest that handshakes can lead to infection spread such as colds and flu and gastrointestinal diseases.  We also know that kisses and embraces have led to abnormal kinds of disease transmission, such as the avian flu.  And then there’s the annual rise in sexually transmitted diseases over the holiday season thanks in part to liberated libidos and reduced discretions.

Once again, the answers to prevent spread are simple.  Just remember that what may seem a good idea may end up costing more than expected.  Be aware of those around who are sick but also be aware of yourself and your own actions.  And more important than anything else, if you feel you may have come down with an infection that isn’t as simple as a cold or diarrhea, make sure you see your doctor soon after.

Keeping the Soap and Sanitizer Close: I’ve been saying this for years but it’s always good to repeat:  clean hands mean less infections!  And while study after study continue to show that hand sanitizers are not a replacement for soap or good hygiene practices (including mine), the fact remains that a low microbial burden on the hands will keep the germs at bay.  So, don’t forsake the hand sanitizer but rather, make sure that you keep a good regimen of keeping hands clean with soap and water and then use hand sanitizer after your hands have come into contact with something foreign or unknown (even if it means having to hide your hands after a conspicuous handshake).

Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Before I get accused of being a Germy Scrooge, I’ll just mention here that I’m not trying to bring fear to the holidays.  I’m just trying to help make sure that the time is as healthy as it is happy.  I know what it’s like to be sick during the holidays and it’s no fun.  Hopefully, by at least knowing some of the risks that exist, people can be a little more aware of their corporeal ecology and find ways and means to prevent infection spread and keep the spirit and joy intact.

Happy Holidays!