Cold and flu season is around the corner. When children go back to school, they start trading viruses at a feverish pace. Then they take their new "friends" home to the rest of the family.
Once viruses are loose in a community, they are easily transmitted. Doorknobs, ATM machines, money, elevator buttons, handrails and gasoline-pump handles are just some of the places that germs like to lurk. And people help them along when they unconsciously rub their eyes, scratch their noses or bite their fingernails.
Even picking up a takeout coffee could be hazardous. Sometimes the person handling the money also puts the lid on the cup. That means whatever viruses were on the money might now be waiting for your first sip.
How do you keep these unwanted hitchhikers at bay? The best advice is frequent hand washing. Most people (especially kids) don't wash often or thoroughly.
There is a downside to serious seasonal sudsing, though. Mechanics, nurses, surgeons, dishwashers and veterinarians frequently suffer from red, rough, chapped hands because they wash them dozens of times a day.
Regular soap, especially antibacterial soap and cleansers, can strip off natural oils and result in painfully dry cracked skin. Split fingertips can make many small chores, such as typing, tying shoes or buttoning a shirt, extremely challenging.
What's a person to do? Choosing between exposing yourself to infection or wrecking your hands is a difficult dilemma.
A little-appreciated ingredient in some moisturizers can be exceptionally helpful. A study in the highly regarded Journal of Investigative Dermatology (June 2012) suggests that urea can improve barrier function and regulate gene activity in the skin to improve its antimicrobial defenses.
Urea (aka carbamide) is a natural nitrogen-containing compound made by the body. It is found mixed with other compounds in skin oils. At concentrations of around 10 percent, urea is an excellent skin protector. You'll find urea in moisturizers such as Ti-U-Lac, Udderly Smooth Extra Care Cream With 10 Percent Urea, Urea Care and Ureacin.
Another option to soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers uses the natural herb thyme as the source of its antimicrobial ingredient. The Greeks and Romans used it medicinally. Laboratory experiments show that thymol has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal activity. One company that uses thymol and oregano oil in its hand sanitizer is CleanWell (www.CleanWellToday.com).
One other way to address the cold-season dilemma is to make sure that everyone in the family gets adequate vitamin D. Research has shown that vitamin D supplements can reduce the likelihood that susceptible schoolchildren develop colds or flu (Pediatrics, September 2012).
In addition, readers have reported to us that taking supplemental vitamin D in the winter can reduce the number of times they have to deal with sore split fingers and cracked hands. This is not as weird as it seems; some studies suggest that vitamin D supplements can help skin maintain its natural antimicrobial barriers.
The best way to avoid getting sick this winter is to clean hands regularly and make sure you have adequate levels of vitamin D.