Dear Pharmacist: Confession: I'm a germaphobe and now avoid power hand dryers in public restrooms because of your recent article. Any other advice to keep pesky germs off my clean body? -- L.V., Tulsa, Okla.
Sorry to create more concern about germs for you, but those hands-free water faucets may be pouring more bacteria on your hands than old-fashioned tap-water faucets.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital tested water samples from their hospital (including patient rooms) and half the samples from hands-free electric faucets tested positive for a bug called legionella and other bacteria. The water samples from old-fashioned tap faucets tested positive only 15 percent of the time. Engineering may be the problem. Apparently, plumbing for the hands-free automatic models have numerous valves, screens and filters that provide a nesting place for bacteria.
I have three thoughts about this. One, I'm not sure the research extrapolates to public restrooms, after all, the samples were collected from a hospital where dangerous germs run amok. Two, if you have a strong immune system, you're less likely to get sick. Your skin harbors germs on it at all times. The average office desk harbors 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. So even though germs are literally everywhere, you have immunity to most germs. And finally, the study didn't account for touching faucet handles. They only tested water samples. If you think about it, people step out of their personal stall, and then touch the hot or cold handles with their bare fingers. Like you, I'd rather stick my hands under automatic faucets than actually touch the handles other people have touched before me.
Some bacteria are beneficial. The good "bugs" protect you from the bad ones. You have this beautiful garden of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract that protects you from bacterial/fungal infection, gives you energy, makes B vitamins and helps you lose weight. Most people refer to beneficial bacteria as "probiotics." Don't freak out, but you're growing them as we speak. You can buy them as supplements in health food stores. Listen carefully, this is huge and impacts your health tremendously.
Every person manufactures their own probiotics, and it becomes a fingerprint for you. Your gut microflora is different from mine, is different from your child's, and so on. I call it your "flora fingerprint." This is why taking billions of organisms, from many different strains is not so good. With probiotics, the more, the messier.
Your body doesn't recognize all the foreign strains in some of those supplements, and could launch an attack on the "bugs" if you don't naturally make them. Taking probiotics that aren't part of your flora fingerprint can make you sick. I discuss this on my Facebook fan page, and in chapter 17 of "Drug Muggers." You should nurture your own flora fingerprint with the right supplement. Then you can stick your hands under those electric faucets, or in a trash container for that matter, and your immune system will be strong enough to protect you.
This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure your disease. Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. To ask her a question or to learn more about your health, visit DearPharmacist.com.