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Long Time, No Colds

June 10th, 2006

I haven’t had a cold in quite a while now. It’s been at least ten months since I caught one, maybe a year. True, I have been dieting and eating well for the past six months, and I’ve been exercising for the past two or three months, and I am sure that’s helping. But that doesn’t explain the four to six months before then. The strongest reason I’m not catching colds is, I believe, something else.

I tended to catch colds a lot. I teach college classes, and so I’m around lots of people with sicknesses all the time. The last time I remember catching a cold, sometime in the middle of last year, there was a student with a bad cough who insisted on sitting right next to the rather small class whiteboard, so as I gave the lesson, here was this guy, coughing like a madman just a foot away from me. A few days later, I was symptomatic.

But it didn’t always take something that dramatic to get me sick; in the computer lab, students often have trouble on their machines and I have to use their mice and keyboards at times. Colds would be inevitable, and I used to get three to six of them every year. And since my job involves a lot of lecturing, colds can be a double curse, tearing up your throat when you need it most.

So why did the colds stop? Well, I happened to stop catching them at the same time I started using an alcohol-based hand wash. It wasn’t even my idea at first–I noticed that my local supermarket started offering it. You see, in Japan, there are no baggers at supermarkets. When you buy your stuff at the checkout stand, it’s taken out of the handbaskets they give you, and into another. They also give you as many bags as you need. Then you go past the checkout stands to a row of tables, where you bag the stuff you just bought. Since you’re handling stuff like chicken meat (even though it’s packaged), the store considerately started supplying pump-spray bottles of alcohol wash at the bagging tables. I had known about the stuff before, but had never thought about using it. Using it at the supermarket made me want to use it at home, and so I found at bought a few bottles at the supermarket pharmacy, and have been using it ever since.

And since I started, I haven’t caught a single cold. Soon after I started noticing this connection, I expanded my supply, and now I have one bottle each handy at home and at work (two at work if I teach at two buildings). I wash my hands with it every time I come home from the outside, and every time I get out of a class. When I see people getting sick around me, I wash more often, especially after coming in contact with anybody, touching their hands or something they held.

In addition, I’ve become more careful about touching my face. They say that you don’t catch much that’s airborne; instead, most illnesses are caught by touching something or someone with the bug, and then by touching your face. So if I feel an itch on my nose during class, I use my sleeve to relieve the itch, and otherwise keep my hands away from my face in public, until I wash.

And as I said, it seems to work. We just went through a wave of illness at school, one which, before, I would almost certainly have fallen victim to. But I got through it fine.

I mentioned this to a student recently, and she commented that when she worked at a hospital, she had to use the stuff (most hospitals in Japan have it, and staff must wash after seeing each patient). She said she didn’t like it because it was sticky. I immediately knew what she meant, as the wash I saw my doc use once was the gel type, which I don’t like myself. The wash I get is not like that, it’s as liquid as water, and looks and smells just like regular home-use alcohol (though the writing on the side of the bottle suggests a lot of other disinfecting agents in there as well). It feels like alcohol, cooling, and dries off really quickly. And it has no deleterious effect on my skin.

So unless this was a huge fluke and I start getting colds all the time again, I am continuing to use this stuff.

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  1. Paul
    June 11th, 2006 at 04:54 | #1

    One of the FAA’s big money-saving initiatives lately has been to try and reduce the amount of sick leave used by air traffic controllers. Controllers use more sick leave, on average, than other federal employees and/or other employees in the FAA.

    Of course, this is partly due to the fact that as a controller, you can’t take any kind of medication that might make you drowsy. In fact, there’s a big long list of medicines that disqualify you from working.

    When it comes to colds/flu, about the only thing you can take is Sudafed or something. So the agency’s push to reduce sick leave is a bit stupid; there’s lots of times when you are just sick enough that if you could take a Dristan or something, you’d be okay to work, but since you can’t take it and work, you gotta call in sick.

    The agency typically pays for flu shots every year and encourages all controllers to get one. Since we’re all under age 56 (mandatory retirement age), that’s a bit unusual- they urge the more at-risk populations to get them first.

    But our position rotation is a recipie for getting sick. In my area, we typically have 5 sectors open each day, and each sector has the “radar” (R) position and the “assistant” (D, for Data) position. Sometimes you work both spots alone.

    Both the R and D spots have a keyboard and a trackball. You work a position anywhere from 45 to 120 minutes, then you get a break… and then when you come back, you typically wind up working a different sector’s position.

    So all day, everyone you’re working with is rolling through each of the various positions, touching them with their hands… and so are you.

    Epidemologists would freak out from a “trying to not get sick” point of view, because we’re doing exactly what they say to NOT do. :)

    In the 2004-2005 flu season, when the flu shot supply was limited, we didn’t get any shots. Instead, they started buying the gel-type alcohol disinfectant.

    I would be interested to see if it worked, or if there’s larger facilities (like ours- 200+ controllers) that did NOT buy the stuff, and compare the numbers on sick leave useage.

    Seattle, WA

  2. Shari
    June 11th, 2006 at 10:46 | #2

    While it isn’t hurting you to use alcohol-based wipes to wash your hands, it also isn’t necessary. You would have similar results just by making sure you wash your hands with soap and avoid touching your face as you have been. The presence of the alcohol-based wipes was your incentive to wash your hands but it really isn’t necessary to use them specifically and they probably cost more than soap.

    Most people would find they were ill less often if they just got into the habit of washing their hands the minute they walked in the door after a shopping trip or after work in addition to the usual situations where one washes one’s hands.

  3. Luis
    June 11th, 2006 at 12:32 | #3

    One of the problems with soap-and-water is immediate recontamination when in public. I used to wash with soap and water, and still got colds. For the most part, it was because of the fact that bathroom doors open inwards and not outwards, and that my school and most places in Japan have no paper towels, only blow dryers. That means that after washing, it is necessary to grab onto the bathroom door handle with force–a handle that is likely the least sanitary surface in the building. That always struck me as damned poor designing. The alcohol wash is, also, much easier, especially considering that I don’t have to be walking to the bathroom every time I come in contact with someone.

  4. ykw
    June 12th, 2006 at 05:40 | #4

    I one time asked a doctor if they get sick a lot, since they are exposed to sick people all the time, and the fellow said he does not since he washes his hands after seeing each patient. If that is the solution, then that would suggest that the airborne issue is of less importance. I was amazed that the fellow did not get sick more often.

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