All the Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps, Colds, and the Flu

The long hot days of summer have blown by as if propelled by Hurricane Hermine’s winds. The sun sets earlier, sugar maples are starting to tinge, and the evenings already bear traces of autumn chill. September is upon us – the kids are back in school, pumpkins are showing up in the supermarkets, and the “Get your flu shot here” signs are appearing all around us. Sadly, colds, influenza, and throat, ear and sinus infections can’t be far behind.

With kids and adults in close proximity, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of illnesses. The late summer and early fall also bring a resurgence in seasonal allergies. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one malady from another  . . . with the aches and pains, runny noses, itchy throats and increased body temperature, we’re off to the doctor in search of an antibiotic, or searching at the drug store for magic pills to cure or, at the least, relieve us.

Many of the illnesses that wreak havoc in the autumn and winter are caused by bacteria or viruses, and it’s important to know the difference. Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance, which is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some ways that reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to clean our hands. As we touch people, surfaces, and objects throughout the day, we accumulate germs on our hands. In turn, we can infect ourselves with these germs by touching our eyes, nose, or mouth and food.

Although it’s impossible to keep our hands germ-free, washing hands frequently helps limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. According to CDC research, some viruses and bacteria can live from 20 minutes up to two hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, ATM machines and desks. So wash before and after using a restroom. Wash after visiting the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or using an ATM. When it isn’t easy to wash, use a hand sanitizer. Don’t use anyone else’s toothbrush, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates. And in late-breaking news, stop using antibacterial soaps and products – they aren’t useful in protecting you, and are causing more damage than good.

Antibacterial soaps aren’t good for us

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned the sale of soaps containing certain antibacterial chemicals, saying industry had failed to prove they were safe to use over the long term or more effective than using ordinary soap and water.

In all the FDA took action against 19 different chemicals and has given industry a year to take them out of their products. About 40 percent of soaps – including liquid hand soap and bar soap – contain the chemicals. Triclosan, mostly used in liquid soap, and triclocarban, in bar soaps, are by far the most common.

The rule applies only to consumer hand washes and soaps. Other products may still contain the chemicals. The agency is also studying the safety and efficacy of hand sanitizers and wipes, and has asked companies for data on three active ingredients – alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol and benzalkonium chloride – before issuing a final rule on them.

This decision comes after years of mounting concerns that the antibacterial chemicals that go into everyday products are doing more harm than good. Health experts have pushed the agency to regulate antimicrobial chemicals, warning that they risk damaging hormones in children and promote drug-resistant infections. Additionally, studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism, and health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans.

The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to wash their hands before operations. Their use has expanded significantly in recent years as manufacturers added them to a variety of products, including mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. The CDC reports the chemicals from antibiotic soaps are found in the urine of three-quarters of Americans, one of the many factors they considered in issuing the ban.

The surest bet for a healthy fall and winter is to be vigilant about hand washing, and to take reasonable precautions such as getting flu shots (note that the CDC is questioning the effectiveness of the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine for the 2016/2017 flu season) and avoiding people who are coughing, feverish or obviously ill. When sick, try to stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the joy, and seek medical care if you feel you may require antibiotics or other medicinal remedies. You also can speak with your physician about antibiotic resistance, or take the time to learn more about this important subject by visiting reliable websites such as www.cdc.gov.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!