Unfortunately, most of us have experienced a cold or flu.
The symptoms such as fever, congestion, coughing, and sore throat spread easily through our workplaces, schools, and homes, no matter where we live.
Colds and influenza (flu) are caused by viruses. Viruses are responsible for many other serious illnesses.
Since our hands are always in contact with other people, objects, and ourselves it is no wonder that hand hygiene is a major focus when it comes to preventing the spread of disease-carrying germs.
You probably never thought of soap as a lethal weapon -- but it can be for some viruses.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says that for good hand hygiene all you need is plain soap and water.
Yet people love to stock up on hand sanitizer. I recently read that someone sold a bottle of Purell on eBay for $138.
While hand sanitizers containing over 60 percent alcohol can be a good option when you are not near a sink, for respiratory viruses, like the novel coronavirus, the flu, and the common cold, plain old SOAP can be even more effective than hand sanitizer. Source
Soap combined with warm running water is by far the best way to eliminate germs from our hands. WHY? Because soap molecules, themselves, are very effective at destroying the surface membranes of some bacteria and viruses, including the novel coronavirus.
Also, scrubbing hands together creates friction that helps wash away dirt, grease, and microbes under running water.
Palli Thordarson, a Professor in Chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia says, "You can’t, even for a million dollars, get a drug for the coronavirus – but your grandmother’s bar of soap kills the virus." Source theguardian.com
In the same article published in the Guardian, Palli Thordarson states that “Viruses can be active outside the body for hours, even days. Disinfectants, liquids, wipes, gels, and creams containing alcohol are all useful at getting rid of them – but they are not quite as good as normal soap.” He continues by saying that soap does not simply wash viruses down the drain, soap destroys them. Source theguardian.com
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.” Source fda.gov/news-events
I will talk more about how handwashing with simple soap works to destroy viruses, but first some "virus" science.
So, What is a Virus?
Viruses exist almost everywhere on earth. They can infect animals, plants, fungi, and even bacteria.
Viruses cause a variety of diseases in humans. They are very, very tiny and simple infectious microbes. They are much smaller than bacteria and cannot be seen with an ordinary microscope.
They are not really considered to be "alive" since they cannot accomplish much on their own.
Viruses are not made up of cells, they do not grow, cannot make their own energy and cannot even replicate on their own.
Viruses are basically little packets of genetic material (nucleic acid) and protein.
Outside of a host cell, viruses cannot function. Viruses need a host, another living organism to provide them everything they need to build and power themselves.
They literally hijack a host cell and use its machinery to make many viruses, copies of itself.
The virus makes so many copies that the host cell can burst and release the copies (virions).
The picture shows replication inside one host cell. The copies, called Virions, are complete viruses, but they are infective outside the host cell until they are able to infect other cells. As each new copy enters a new host cell it repeats the replication cycle.
Picture from scienceunderthesurface.wordpress.com
Thus, that one little virus can turn into lots and lots of viruses that make you quite ill.
Viruses were discovered in 1892, and yet even in 2020, researchers are still uncovering their secrets.
They do not leave fossil remains, so viruses are difficult to trace through time. Much about the origin of viruses and how they evolve remains a mystery.
Viruses can cause significant problems if they jump from one type of host species to another. For example, some viruses only affect one type of host like a bat. If a virus that normally affects bats enters a human, it can pick up some human DNA and produce a new type of virus that may be more likely to affect humans in the future.
This is why scientists are concerned about rare viruses that spread from animals to people.
I know this might sound strange, but although viruses may not be alive, they are not really dead either.
Even though they are not considered living creatures, viruses do have some features in common with cell-based life.
For example, they have a genetic code like the cells of all living things--that can replicate itself (using a host), they can adapt to their environment and they also display genetic variation and can evolve or change over time, which is why it is difficult to create a perfect influenza vaccine each year.
The Simple Structure of a Virus
There many different types of viruses in the world and they vary a great deal in their structures, sizes, shapes, and life cycles.
Viruses vary widely in their shape and complexity. Some look like round spiky balls, while others have a more complicated shape that resembles a spider or an alien spacecraft.
For example, under the microscope, coronaviruses appear to be covered with pointy spikes which gives them the appearance of a crown or "corona" on top of the virus.
Photo from hopkinsmedicine.org
"Beneath the crown is the outer layer of the virus, which is made up of lipids, or what you and I would call fat," says Dr. John Williams, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Viruses also vary in the type of host they target or even the specific host cells. This explains how a virus that affects a cat may not affect a dog or a human.
Although they differ quite a bit, most viruses share a few key features. These include:
- A protective protein shell, or capsid that comes in many shapes
- A nucleic acid genome or genetic material made of DNA or RNA, located inside of the capsid set of genetic instructions
- A lipid membrane which surrounds the entire capsid called the envelope (found only in some viruses, including influenza and coronavirus--these types of viruses are called enveloped viruses as opposed to naked viruses)
- Spikes for attaching to host cell surfaces
What is a viral infection?
Although the basic mechanism by which viruses cause illness is similar, specific viruses behave in their own unique way.
Some viruses, like HIV, can even "sleep" inside host cells for years before reproducing and creating symptoms.
In this blog, I am focusing on respiratory viruses.
Understanding the way in which viruses work to invade our cells and cause illness is an entire discipline and profession, virology. I am just trying to provide a very simple explanation.
Viruses lie around our environment all of the time just waiting for the right host and host cell to come along.
They can enter our bodies through the nose, mouth, eyes or breaks in the skin.
Unfortunately, many viruses are most infectious when symptoms are mildest.
A Typical Respiratory Virus Scenario
- An infected person sneezes or coughs near you
- You inhale the virus which then attaches to cells lining the sinuses in your nose
- The virus infects the host cell by attaching to the cell membrane and literally tricking the host cell to allow it to enter
- Once inside the virus takes over the cell and rapidly reproduces tons of new viruses as described above
- The host cell usually breaks and releases the new viruses into your body
- Each infected cell can release millions of copies of the virus before the cell finally breaks down and dies
- The viruses may infect nearby cells, enter your bloodstream or end up in droplets that escape the lungs when you cough or sneeze
- After a period known as the incubation period, symptoms may start to show
- Fluid from your sinuses flows into your nasal passages and voila you now have a runny nose
- Viruses in the fluid that drips down your throat attack the cells lining your throat and give you a sore throat
- Viruses in your bloodstream can attack muscle cells and cause you to have muscle aches
Many of the symptoms you feel actually come from the war your immune systems wages against the virus. For example, a fever actually helps you to fight the infection by slowing down the rate of viral reproduction.
In severe cases, the immune system can overreact and begin attacking healthy lung cells. The lungs become congested with dying cells and fluid causing difficulty breathing.
Depending on the virulence of the virus and the condition of the host, infections can lead to pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome, and possibly death.
(Virulence refers to the degree of damage caused by a microbe to its host. The more virulent--the more damage)
How They Spread
When you cough, or especially when you sneeze, tiny droplets from your airways can fly 30 feet sending virus particles onto nearby people and surfaces, where the virus can remain infectious for several hours to several days.
Respiratory viruses, like the flu, the common cold, and the novel coronavirus, are also easily spread via our hands.
For example, when sick people touch viral particles "living" in their mucous or saliva these particles will stick to their hands. They then shake hands, touch you or touch some inanimate object.
Our hands act as sticky glue traps for viruses.
For example, when you touch a doorknob with a virus droplet on it, the virus sticks to your hands. If you then touch your face, especially your nose, eyes, or mouth, you can get infected.
And it turns out that most people touch their face once every two to five minutes.
Thus, our hands should be our front line defense in the war against virus transmission.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing hands with soap and water as the top way to clean our hands.
How Soap Works on Viruses
The way in which soap "kills" virus is all about science--of course!
If you read our blog, "How Soap Works" you learned how a molecule of soap works to tear apart oily dirt. The process is similar for a virus.
Professor Palli Thordarson calls viruses “nano-sized grease balls.” And destroying grease balls is the goal of soap!
A soap molecule looks similar to a tiny sperm cell, with a head and tail. The head, which is hydrophilic (water-loving) bonds with water but the tail, which is hydrophobic (afraid of water) prefers oil and fat.
As you wash your hands the hydrophobic side of the soap molecule, which is attracted to fats and oils, burrows its way into the fatty envelope of the virus and literally pulls the virus apart.
Then the harmless remnants of virus get washed down the drain. "All those bubbles and foam ... literally pick germs up and wash them down the drain," said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
As an analogy, Dr. John Williams asks us to imagine that our hands are like a butter dish covered with buttery fat--like the fatty outer layer of a virus. "You try to wash your butter dish with water alone, but that butter is not coming off the dish. You need some soap to dissolve grease."
The soap also helps loosen the “glue” that holds the virus to the skin.
Soap “is almost like a demolition team breaking down a building and taking all the bricks away,” says Palli Thordarson.
The trick is that it takes a little time for this demolition to happen.
The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water for a duration of 20 seconds.
In order to effectively time out 20 seconds while washing your hands, you can hum or sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice from beginning to end.
You can easily teach this method to children!
The best way to prevent the spread of the illness is to wash your hands often.
You need to scrub, build up bubbles, and scrub some more. Our skin is wrinkly, and it takes time for the soap to penetrate into all the tiny crevices and destroy the viruses that hide within the skinfolds.
Be sure to rub and lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
All of this hand scrubbing also creates friction that helps wash away dirt, grease, and germs under running water.
What if Soap and Water are Not Available?
When you are on the go and soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand rubs and sprays that contain greater than 60% alcohol can be effective if used properly.
While hand sanitizer is useful in a pinch, it can fail under certain conditions. Hand sanitizers work well in hospital settings where hands are generally clean and not heavily soiled or greasy.
If hands are wet or sweaty the water can dilute the sanitizer and reduce the effectiveness. Also, if hands are dirty or sticky, the sanitizer will not clean your hands of sticky grease to which viruses can also adhere. "Alcohol is pretty effective at killing germs, but it doesn't wash away stuff," says Dr. William Schaffner.
According to the CDC, "There are important differences between washing hands with soap and water and using hand sanitizer. Soap and water work to remove all types of germs from hands, while sanitizer acts by killing certain germs on the skin.
Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs in many situations, they should be used in the right situations. Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs like norovirus, Cryptosporidium, and Clostridioides difficile, as well as chemicals."
How To Use a Hand Sanitizer
If you need to use a hand sanitizer be sure to check the ingredients!
The CDC recommends a sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol. Beware of sanitizers or wipes on the market that contain less or even contain no alcohol at all.
Lesser concentrations of alcohol simply decrease the growth of germs rather than killing them. There is also some concern that alcohol-based "hand sanitizers" or hand rubs with low alcohol content may actually lead to germ resistance.
Baby wipes will not work, antibacterial wipes will NOT kill viruses, and, NO, neither will your bottle of Jack Daniels Whiskey or Tito's Vodka since they are only about 40% ethanol!
A hand sanitizer is ineffective if too little is applied or it is wiped off before it has dried completely
Just putting a little dollop in the palm of your hand and wiping quickly isn't good enough, says Dr. William Schaffner.
"You've got to use enough and get it all over the surfaces. Rub it all over your hands, between your fingers and on the back of your hands."
Soap & Water -- The Simple Answer
Applying hand sanitizer may be easier, but soap and water are far more effective at removing many common illness-causing germs.
Dr. Miryam Wahrman, a professor of biology at William Paterson University in New Jersey and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World, believes the idea of handwashing with soap and water makes simple sense. “You can say to people: ‘Here’s one thing you can do to lower your risk.’ It’s simple. It’s right there and doesn’t cost anything. Wash your hands with soap before you touch your mouth, your nose or your eyes. It’s empowering because it really does make a difference.”
The source is an interesting article titled "Keep it clean: The surprising 130-year history of handwashing"
“Soap doesn’t really fail easily,” Palli Thordarson says.
What Kind of Soap? Of course, we believe that Natural Soap, especially soap from Chagrin Valley, is best, but the formulation of soap does not really matter.
You do not need to use “antibacterial soap.” The Food and Drug Administration actually advises against antibacterial soap due to a lack of evidence of its usefulness. Read our blog "Antibacterials-More Harm Than Good"
You do not need to buy extra super-harsh detergent, simple soap for 20 seconds works fine.
So lather up often with a natural simple soap!
Remember Professor Thordarson says, "You can’t, even for a million dollars, get a drug for the coronavirus – but your grandmother’s bar of soap kills the virus." Source theguardian.com
By the way, simple soap and water also fights viruses on surfaces!