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Are we scrubbing away the good guys?
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Wednesday, December 19, 2012 7:48 PM

Cold & flu season is here

Mary Kuhlman • Ohio News Connection

COLUMBUS - Flu season is early in Ohio, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and this year we're likely to see a rise in the incidence of flu, compared with last year's unusually low number of cases.

Dr. Julie Mangino, a professor of internal medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Ohio State University Medical Center, says more flu cases than usual already have been reported there in the past month.

"We're seeing a spike here in Columbus. People are very cognizant about what we would call 'cough etiquette' - coughing in their sleeve, covering their cough and washing their hands frequently."

While hand-washing is recommended as the best way to stay healthy, a study from Johns Hopkins University raises questions about whether we're taking it too far with the use of antibacterial products. The researchers found that children with higher levels of chemicals from using antibacterial soaps had more allergies.

Dr. Jay Portnoy, director of the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Children's Mercy Hospital, says not all bacteria are bad, so we do not want to be scrubbing away the good ones.

"If we start to kill off all the normal bacteria, use too many antimicrobial soaps, then we don't develop the ability to get along with them, and they don't provide the service that we're used to."

The services they provide help in fighting off the bad bacteria. Researchers say lack of exposure to bad bacteria can cause our immune systems to become overactive and react to things such as cats and pollen.

Portnoy describes it as a symbiotic relationship we have with the normal bacteria living on, and in, us.

"Our skin has bacteria on it. Our intestines have bacteria in them, and they provide services. They help us digest our food. They help produce vitamins and minerals for us. They help to fend off the pathogens or the bad bacteria."

Portnoy is not suggesting that people stop washing their hands. He says everyone needs to wash with soap and water to prevent the spread of disease - especially doctors.

"I do wash my hands before every patient, and patients should ask their doctor to do that. If your doctor walks into the room and he or she doesn't wash their hands, before they touch you ask them to please wash their hands."

The Johns Hopkins study is available at hopkinschildrens.org. CDC hand-washing guidelines are at cdc.gov.