|Families that use alcohol-based hand gels seem to be less likely than those that stick with soap and water to pass around the common cold, according to a new study.
Among 208 families researchers followed during a single cold season, the 22 percent who used waterless, alcohol-based hand sanitizers had a lower rate of cold transmission among family members.
The gels seemed somewhat protective against gastrointestinal infections as well, but the effect was not significant in statistical terms, according to findings published in the medical journal Pediatrics.
All of the families in the study had at least one young child in day care, a breeding ground for colds and cases of "stomach flu" -- which preschoolers often pass on to their parents and siblings.
One of the most common ways people catch a cold is by touching someone or something contaminated with cold virus particles, then touching their own eyes, nose or mouth. Similarly, bugs that cause vomiting and diarrhea can be transmitted, for instance, when an infected person prepares food for someone else, or when a parent changes a sick child's diaper. Because of this, good "hand hygiene" is one of the best ways to ward off colds and gastrointestinal woes.
However, a sink is not always at hand. And it's the convenience of alcohol-based hand gels that may give them an edge over soap and water, according to Dr. Grace M. Lee of Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston, the lead author of the new study.
The findings, she told Reuters Health, do not show for certain that the products themselves prevented colds in the families who used them. These families may have just been more conscious of good hand hygiene in general, Lee said.
"Close attention to hand hygiene is important for preventing the spread of colds and stomach flu in the home," she said, adding, "Alcohol-based hand gels can be part of that."
The products are widely used in hospitals and nursing homes because studies have shown that healthcare workers who use them harbor fewer disease-causing microbes on their hands. This study, according to Lee and her colleagues, is the first to suggest that when someone brings a cold home, hand gels may reduce the odds of passing the misery on to other family members.
But the study also found a good deal of misconception about how colds and gastrointestinal infections are transmitted, and about good hand hygiene.
Nearly all respondents said that kissing a sick person is a good way to get a cold -- even though it's not an efficient mode of transmission -- while only two-thirds correctly believed that shaking hands with a cold sufferer was a risky proposition.
What's more, Lee's team found, only a minority of respondents knew that the stomach flu can be picked up by changing a diaper or eating food prepared by an infected person.
When asked about their hand hygiene routines, 30 percent of respondents said that, at least sometimes, they used only water. To decontaminate germy hands, experts advise scrubbing for at least 15 seconds with warm water and soap.
In addition, while most study participants said they cleaned their hands after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, only one-third said they always did so after blowing their noses.
Parents, Lee noted, seem to need better education on the importance of "contaminated hands" in passing around illness.
The study received funding from Reckitt-Benckiser, Inc., a maker of cleaning and disinfection products.
SOURCE; Pediatrics, April 2005.
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