In the midst of this year's severe flu season, there are a lot of germaphobes going around, supersanitizing everything they can't stand to put their hands on.
You know whom we're talking about: the co-worker squirting globs of hand sanitizer faster than a speeding pathogen, the shopper fighting back the flu with a single antibacterial wipe on the grocery cart, the car salesman able to avoid a handshake with a strategic pat on the back instead.
Epidemiologists certainly praise the regular cleaning of hands and surfaces. Still, is it possible we have come down with a serious case of too much information, seeing danger everywhere?
"Like everything in life, there should be a balance," said Dr. Steve O'Brien,
But it's also important not to be obsessive about it, O'Brien said. "We don't want to become afraid of each other or of human contact. We need human contact, or we'll be like the boy in the bubble, living in plastic."
Even so, as we're bombarded with a steady stream of reports of epidemics and advertisements for antibacterial products, the ranks of the "germ aware" are spreading. Even celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Jennifer
Jacqueline Moshref, 53, of Sunnyvale says she caught her germaphobic tendencies from her mom, whom the family dubbed "Mrs. Howard Hughes" for her practice of slathering sanitizer at every turn. But she's not sorry and feels her sanitary methods have kept her healthy this year as comrades have fallen to the flu.
"On Sundays at church, when we're supposed to give a sign of peace to the people around us -- a handshake or hug -- I just give a nod. This time of year, I kind of inch my way away from the person next to me and avoid contact," Moshref said of her wary ways of worship, noting with a chuckle that she's not completely obsessive. "I don't go so far as to wear a surgical mask," she said. "It would clash with my outfits."
Be advised: Those who call themselves "germ aware" or even "germaphobes" are not those with obsessive-compulsive disorders in which lives are severely impeded by fear. Rather, these folks will go ahead and touch a sticky gas pump with a bare hand if they must, but will quickly reach for the cleansing wipes in the glove box before driving home.
And these days, entire websites are devoted to the gentle germaphobe, such as GermAware.com, providing cleansing tips and info about superbugs. At Christmas, there were even "Sani Claus" gift ideas: buttons that read, "Get away from me!" and mugs teeming with colorful cartoon germs.
Dianne Root, 46, of Pleasanton says she's not obsessive, but merely germ conscious. "I have mini hand sanitizer bottles on every key ring, on the dog leashes, at my desk," she said. "People can sometimes just be gross." She and several friends joke about their clean-freak leanings, proud to have come up with the title of "Team Germaphobe" for their group during the Dirty Girl Mud Run at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in October, hermetically sealing themselves in sterile white painters overalls.
Root agrees her germ awareness is partly a case of TMI. "You read so many things every day about what to look out for," she said. "I'm surprised some people can go out of the house at all."
This season, some reports of extreme caution have emerged across the nation. According to USA Today, Chip Joyner, a confirmed germaphobe and owner of The Real Chow Baby stir-fry restaurant in Atlanta, has been using specially designed "touchless" forks -- bent back in the middle so the tines are lifted above the surface of a possibly germy table. He says his fellow germaphobic customers love them so much they've been "lifting" them all the way out of the restaurant.
And because of flu fears, the Manhattan Soccer Club youth organization in New York has been discouraging kids from sharing the traditional postgame high-fives, handshakes or fist bumps in favor of "touching elbows," the New York Post reported in January.
"That seems unnecessary after they've been running around and falling on each other on the field," O'Brien said.
From her email signature of "Clean Hands Save Lives," it's pretty clear how Amy Nichols feels about hygiene. And as director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at UCSF Medical Center, germs are her business, and she doesn't think people wash or sanitize nearly enough.
"At the grocery store, I'll sometimes hang back by the entrance to observe, and I don't notice very many people cleaning off carts with the provided sanitizing cloths," she said. "Yet I continue to hear people say, 'Don't go outside with your hair wet or you'll catch a cold.' That's not how it works. The general public clearly doesn't have an inherent understanding of how pathogens or disease-causing microorganisms are transmitted," she said.
Even so, Nichols -- who wipes down every surface of her workstation daily, and cleanses surfaces in public areas like doorknobs and airplane armrests -- agrees we shouldn't be trying to live in a sterile environment. "We just want to reduce the risk of contagion," she said.
But what about those ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitizer? O'Brien says hand sanitizers don't protect from every surface-borne virus. And using the alcohol-based products too frequently can even dry out the skin and cause cracking, exposing people to risk of other infections. "We are all covered in good bacteria, too, and we're supposed to be; we're animals," he said. "But the sanitizers are indiscriminate and kill all bacteria, denuding your skin.
"Basically, use common sense," he said. "Sanitizers are great in a pinch, but don't overuse them, and instead wash your hands when you can."