Did you wash your hands? Featured

8:57am EDT December 3, 2001
For better or worse, recent events have thrust infectious and contagious diseases into the public spotlight in a way they've never been before.

But even with all the attention on anthrax and small pox, the fact is the average American is more likely to be stricken with the common cold or seasonal flu than to even know someone who knows someone who may be affected by biological warfare.

Your chances of coming down with any of this season's garden variety illnesses are even greater if you work in an office with other employees, have children in day care or school or work with others who have children. In short, you're taking a risk just by leaving your house and going to the office.

For those determined to side-step our seasonal affliction, there are flu shots, homeopathic remedies, juice and vitamins. But, often the best prevention is a simple awareness of what causes and what prevents the common cold.

According to a study by Harvard researchers, 60 percent of parents erroneously believe some colds are caused by bacteria. Nearly half of those surveyed believe colds should be treated with antibiotics. But colds are viral, and antibiotics have no effect on them.

In addition, 90 percent of parents believe colds are more likely to be transmitted by sharing drinks or utensils, or even kissing. Only three-quarters of respondents correctly thought that shaking hands was a major factor. Most often, colds are transmitted through contact with the nose and eyes, making the hands the most likely vehicle for spreading illness.

No matter how simple basic illness-prevention measures like hand washing are, there seems to be an awareness gap. According to Stephen Musgrave of the Wellness Council of Northeast Ohio, a not-for-profit that promotes wellness at the workplace, even though a healthy lifestyle will protect the majority of office workers from the common cold, programs advocating weight loss, stress management and nutrition don't draw the crowds that other health programs do.

"If we have something about flu shots or water quality, we draw a huge crowd, but if we do something on lifestyle changes, we get seven to eight people," he says.

The domino effect that one co-worker's illness can have on an entire office is legendary. Some businesses devote a lot of resources to combat health-related losses in their offices.

According to Laura Adams, manager of wellness and fitness at Progressive Insurance, "People that are well perform better at work and at home."

One of the components of Progressive's health service program is wellness/fitness. Flu vaccinations are offered free to employees and their spouses and the company teaches a class on the proper way to wash your hands after dealing with children. In addition, quiet rooms are available for employees who are feeling ill.

With more than 55 percent of employees participating in the wellness programs, Adams and Progressive are tracking results in part by evaluating medical claims in correlation with the cost of the programs.

"People that take advantage of the program perform better, and that it is worth the money," Adams says.

In the end, the best method of prevention is simple -- wash your hands and eat your vegetables. However, those actions are just not seen the same way as antibiotics or fad cures.

"Everyone wants an easy solution," says Musgrave.

But easy is not always better. Musgrave warns against fly-by-night cures or preventions.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," he says.

As boring as it sounds, your mother was right. Eating right, getting a good night's sleep and exercising are your best weapons against illness. How to reach: Progressive Insurance (800) 776-4737; Wellness Council of Northeast Ohio, (440) 953-9292

Kim Palmer (kpalmer@sbnnet.com) is managing editor of SBN Magazine.