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Cold season question: To shake or not to shake?

  • Story Highlights
  • Kids get six to eight colds a year; adults usually get one or two
  • Key thing you can do to avoid a cold: Wash your hands
  • Expert: Colds, flu are viral, so the antibacterials don't really help
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By Linda Saether
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It's the season for giving and receiving -- yes, of course, gifts and food and holiday cheer, but also something you probably don't want: germs.

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Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze will help prevent spreading your cold.

Those invisible microorganisms are all around us. More often than not they transmit viruses that can cause, at best, a cold; at worst, the flu. It really isn't fair because you don't even know when you've come in contact with those pesky things until it's too late and you start to feel their presence. Actually what you feel is your own pain or body aches.

According to the American Lung Association, children get between six and eight colds a year, while adults usually get only one or two. Most of us know the symptoms of a cold -- runny nose, dry throat, cough, possibly even a low fever. The symptoms for the flu are similar, which explains why people sometimes confuse the two illnesses. But according to Dr. Lisa Bernstein, it's easy to know the difference. "With a cold you're sort of OK," she says. "With the flu you feel like you have been hit by a bus." Ouch.

In our effort to avoid being hit by that viral bus, we seem to be a society divided. On the one side there are the ultra germ-a-phobics, those brandishing hand sanitizers at a moment's notice, spritzing like a six-shooter at the OK Corral. On the other end of the spectrum is the "germ Darwinian" -- a practitioner of the "survival of the fittest" germ theory. Those folks believe being exposed to all germs is a good thing because taking on those germs will only make us stronger in the long run, even if it means getting sick now so we are armed and ready for the next meeting. Video Watch what you can do to fight a cold »

Dangling in between those two sides are the people like me, living in what we think is the land of common sense.

And that is where Bernstein comes in.

"Some people are freaked out about all these germs, but it really comes down to common sense." (See!!) "Logically you should minimize contact with sick people or minimize contact when you are sick. Cover your mouth when you cough. If possible don't cough into your hand but into a tissue or even your sleeve. But using your hand is better than no cover at all. Hand-washing is the most important thing."

Ahh, the hand-washing. We have heard that forever, from our mothers, from our teachers, from ad campaigns that offer up wipes and gels and soaps and spray, all in an effort to keep us healthy and germ-free. The only problem is it turns out Mom was right and big business was wrong. Soap and water are all we need to keep germs at bay. According to Bernstein, who is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University, those antibacterial hand sanitizers aren't that effective.

"Colds and the flu are viral diseases, so the antibacterial aspect of the soap does no good," Bernstein says. It actually does some harm because "by using these, the bugs [bacteria] are getting smarter, and that is what we see happening."

So, basically, washing with antibacterial soap might make us more resistant to the very medications we might need later should we encounter harmful bacteria.

When it comes to fighting those viruses, it seems to be all in the hands. What about hand-shaking? That meet-and-greet motion has received a terrible rep as a germ pusher.

One germ-a-phobic Web site recommended a no-hand-shaking rule. Of course, that same Web site also recommended you call before you go to a holiday banquet and get a "day of" health report on all those who will be attending the event. One slight snag with that (aside from the DNRI label -- "do not re-invite"-- you will probably get from that host) is that people are usually contagious a day before their symptoms appear, so that "day of" report won't do a whole lot of good.

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But back to hand-shaking. Bernstein has this advice: "It's hard to avoid shaking hands in our society, especially in the business world. People who say they don't shake hands might appear odd." Instead, she recommends, "Shake hands but avoid putting that hand to your face. Then when it is socially OK, wash your hands to avoid germs."

Finally, the simplest way to avoid those ever-present, never-seen germs is to try to stay healthy. When your body is run down in any way, it simply can't fight back and you will get sick. So do what you can -- get the flu shot, try to wash your hands often, and be germ smart. But also be realistic, Bernstein concludes. "People are looking for this magic thing, the thing that will make us never get sick. The only problem with that is that is just not going to happen." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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