Greeting ritual returns: How unsanitary is the handshake?

After a two-year break due to fear of infection, more and more hands are being shaken again.

Greeting ritual returns: How unsanitary is the handshake?

After a two-year break due to fear of infection, more and more hands are being shaken again. But how unhygienic is this type of greeting really? How great is the risk of becoming infected with pathogens in this way? A hospital hygienist gives the all-clear.

Sometimes it's firm, sometimes rather lax - and after two years of pandemic, above all, really unusual: the handshake is slowly returning to everyday life. Many are now asking themselves: What do I take with me from the greeting ritual - apart from a friendly hello? Do I have to worry about catching the corona virus or another pathogen on this way? Peter Walger from the German Society for Hospital Hygiene (DGKH) gives answers in an interview.

How much health risk does a handshake pose?

Peter Walger: We don't get infected with Corona or other pathogens of respiratory diseases through our hands alone. However, shaking hands can contaminate the hands with secretions that contain viruses. If these secretions then get on the hands on the mucous membranes - for example from the mouth or nose - it can lead to an infection.

How high the risk of infection from shaking hands is, of course, depends on whether your counterpart has touched highly infectious secretions. This is the case, for example, if he or she was near a sick person - and caught his or her coughed-up or sneezed secretions. So the risk is not zero, but rather low - at least if you compare it with the risk of infection via droplets. This is especially true in the summertime, when fewer respiratory diseases are transmitted.

Does shaking hands train our immune system because we come into contact with various germs this way?

Our entire life is a confrontation with our environment and the potential pathogens that are there. Shaking hands shouldn't be overrated. Many pathogens that are on our skin only lead to illness if they get into the body by some other route: via an injury, via an operation, if we breathe them into the lungs. Or viruses that get into the nasopharynx via the mucous membranes and lead to infections there. The most advisable training program for the immune system is vaccination. Although an infection that has gone through naturally would be the best protection - but at the price of the disease.

Shaking hands is now making a comeback in many places. How do you make it as safe as possible - for yourself and for others?

Of course, you should wash your hands regularly every day. This applies in general, without thinking of a specific pathogen. However, not everyone does this, as can be observed in every public toilet. However, washing your hands is particularly important after critical situations, for example if you have touched a wet handkerchief or touched a railing that many others have already touched.

If you don't have a way to wash your hands, the small bottle of hand sanitizer will do the trick. In everyday life, however, it is more advisable to wash your hands than to disinfect them. And in general: the hands have no place on the face. That's easy to say, but difficult to implement - but it can be practiced.

About the person: Peter Walger is a specialist in internal medicine, intensive care medicine and infectiology. He is a member of the board of the German Society for Hospital Hygiene (DGKH).

(This article was first published on Friday, May 27, 2022.)

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