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October 14, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, October 14, 2005

Wash your hands of infectious diseases Wash your hands of infectious diseases (October 14, 2005)

Q: What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning can be due to bacteria, viruses or parasites. Food- or water-borne pathogens trigger attacks of vomiting and diarrhea that most people blame on "something I ate." The most familiar are Salmonella and E. coli. These bacteria are found in raw or undercooked meats, non-pasteurized dairy products, unwashed lettuce and other foods.

Mishandling of food contributes to the problem, but prevention is straightforward: Wash your hands and cooking surfaces when preparing food, keep foods refrigerated and serve hot items immediately. When in doubt, throw it out.

Anyone can get food poisoning. When it strikes, hydration is the most important treatment. The young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk.


Q: What is a Staph infection? Is it serious?
Staphylococcus aureus, or "Staph," is a bacterial infection. It can be as innocuous as a small area of pain, swelling and redness, or the patient can develop fever, chills and sweats. Staph can invade muscles or bone, which may require surgical debridement (a process of removing devitalized or dead tissue from a wound). Devitalized tissue can impede the healing process, or invade the bloodstream, which requires intravenous antibiotic therapy. It can also cause toxin-mediated vomiting within hours of a meal.

Staph used to be susceptible to penicillin but now is more than 95 percent resistant. We are seeing more methicillin resistant Staph aureus -- making antibiotics like cephalexin, known commonly as Keflex, ineffective -- in the greater community, not just in nursing homes and the Intensive Care Unit. This complicates its management, particularly in otherwise healthy people. For prevention of Staph infections, wash cuts and scrapes generously with soap and water, and keep them clean, dry and covered.


Q: Can I get an infectious disease from pets?
Yes, but not easily. First, keep your pets current with their vaccines and watch for signs of illness. Before bringing a pet home, educate yourself on the risks associated with any animal. Diseases can be transmitted by livestock, reptiles, fish, birds and rodents.

Teach children to avoid wild or unfamiliar animals. The most common problem is the estimated 4.5 million bite wounds that occur every year in the U.S. Many owners are bitten by their own dogs; up to 80 percent of bites are inflicted by owner's dogs, another 5 to 15 percent by their cats. The highest incidence rates are seen in boys aged 5 to 9 years, because they are more likely to taunt an animal.

Wash all animal (and human) bites immediately and seek medical attention if necessary. Avoid contact with bacteria-laden feces.

Q: Why is hand washing important?
Although we all know people who aspire to have a completely aseptic household, hand washing with soap and water is the most effective way to prevent infections. Anytime the thought, "Should I wash my hands?" crosses your mind, do it. Hopefully, your children will admire and mimic your diligence and be healthier for it!

Washing hands has a fascinating history. In the 1800s, it was customary for doctors to go from patient to patient, uninterrupted, without washing. A physician named Semmelweis observed that hand washing between patient examinations drastically reduced the deaths from puerperal fever at Viennese General Hospital in 1846. Viewed as a troublemaker, he was eventually dismissed from his position on the maternity ward and, at the age of 47, was committed and died in an insane asylum in Vienna.

With cold and flu season upon us, wash your hands!


Daniel Shin, M.D., is an infectious diseases physician with Camino Medical Group in Mountain View.

Have a medical question? E-mail it to Cynthia Greaves at [email protected]

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