We can never sterilize our bodies (nor would we want to). Healthy people live in harmony with trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, parasites) that establish themselves (colonize) the body inside and out. We’ve all heard of the intestinal microbiome: “We depend on a vast army of microbes to stay alive: a balanced microbiome that protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produces vitamins."
The microorganisms that usually occupy a particular body site are called the resident flora and these cells of the resident flora have been historically thought to outnumber a person's own cells 10 to 1. A new study, however, finds that the average human is made of 30 trillion cells and contains about 40 trillion bacteria, most of which reside in your digestive tract.
These are the good germs, or friends. Which one’s are not? We pick up disease-causing bad germs from outside sources: Contaminated objects, like diapers, faucets in public toilets (which I am loath to touch), spoiled food (E. coli, typhoid), people who cough in your face, hard surfaces (phones, doorknobs), contaminated body fluids that cause cellulitis, abscesses, STDs.
Practical advice for staying safe:
You can’t eliminate the resident bacteria on your hands. Just get rid of the nasty ones on the skin surface using soap and water, a hand sanitizer, or a towelette, all available from Travel Medicine, Inc. You will reduce your risk of diarrhea by thirty percent.
NOTE: We rarely remember that bacteria, and indeed the germ theory of disease, are new discoveries. Only recently was hand washing accepted as a disease-preventing measure!
The giant figures of hand washing are the British surgeon Joseph Lister (b.1827) who promoted the use of carbolic acid and Ignaz Semmelweis, from Austria. Semmelweis noted the high incidence of childbirth (puerperal) fever at his hospital in Vienna, and initiated the use of chlorine hand washes, which dramatically reduced the incidence of infection. Eventually, his fellow doctors gave up the chlorine hand washing, and as for Semmelweis — he lost his job and became an outcast. Semmelweis kept trying to convince doctors in other parts of Europe to wash with chlorine, but no one would listen to him. SAD (that's my joke).
The best time to wash of hands is before you eat, especially when traveling overseas. I also advise my clients who go on cruises to avoid the ship’s toilets and other people's germs: only use the toilet and sink in your stateroom. (Note: Cruise ship diarrhea is spread by the norovirus).
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