Welcome to another installment of the Get Ready Mailbag, when we take time to answer questions sent our way by readers like you. Have a question you want answered? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. I’ve read that shaking hands can spread germs. When should you avoid shaking hands? What if you can’t?
A. The handshake, a greeting used in work settings, at formal occasions or among friends, is a common practice in the United States and in many parts of the world. Hands are extended as a sign of welcome, respect and courtesy. But what do you do if you are sick or the person who is about to shake your hand is sick?
Refusing a handshake may come across in social circles as rude, but there’s good reason to think twice before reciprocating with a firm grip. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth. That “something” could be an unwashed, outstretched hand of a neighbor or coworker.
During the recent H1N1 influenza pandemic, concerns about preventing the spread of germs led to greater scrutiny of the common handshake. In some faith communities where greeting fellow worshippers or “passing of the peace” are regular rituals, religious leaders advised against or even forbid shaking hands. And the World Health Organization has promoted “elbow bumps” as an alternative greeting to a hand shake.
So what to do? If you have been sick and someone extends a hand, you might simply say, “I’m sorry, but I am getting over a cold and don’t want to get you sick.” Or, if someone has been hacking into his or her hand and there is no way to politely decline, avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose, and wash your hands with soap and water soon after.
As always, it is best to stay home if you are sick and to avoid contact with sick people when possible, but in those unavoidable situations, the simple act of hand washing with soap and water remains the most effective way of keeping germs at bay. And make sure you’re washing properly with APHA’s Get Ready campaign fact sheet on hand washing, available in both English and Spanish. (PDF) For your best protection against flu, doctors also recommend getting vaccinated.