Flu season: Should we stop shaking hands?

Greetings during flu season

Source: The New York Times

Click photo for larger view.

What with the start of school, the flu season may already be here. Washington State University has already reported over 2000 students with flu symptoms.
Public health officials recommend staying three to five feet away from anyone who coughs or sneezes. Also from anyone who might be infected. But how do we know if someone is carrying the flu if they’re not yet showing symptoms? Are we to stop shaking hands with business colleagues and giving hugs to arriving friends?

According to The New York Times, people are already changing their behavior. Handshakes are quicker. A pat on the back has replaced the hug. Kissing is definitely out. One school district discourages students from exchanging high-fives.

In Spain, the health minister has urged citizens to forgo the customary peck on both cheeks. Officials from Lebanon to Kuwait have called for Muslims celebrating Ramadan not to hug excessively.

Touching elbows has a lower risk of contagion than the fist bump (click on the graphic above for a range of options), but there are social situations where it’s difficult to avoid shaking hands.

You can start out not wanting to shake hands or hug, but if the other person leans over, it becomes more and more difficult to decline. … You are violating a social expectation in a way that is pretty dramatic.

When caught in a bind, you can try explaining that you have a cold and, for the other person’s sake, you prefer not to touch. Anthropologist Alessandro Duranti adds: “That presupposes that both parties believe in the theory of germs.”
Philip Tierno Jr., author of The Secret Life of Germs, recommends: “Saluting is good. Bowing is perfectly acceptable. So too, I think, is just saying hi.”

A flu season advantage to universal health care

According to a blogger in Massachusetts, there is less fear of contracting the flu now that there’s mandatory universal health care.
Paula Hartman Cohen was initially apprehensive, but reports her fears did not materialize. She and her husband go to the same doctors, the same pharmacy, the same medical facilities, use the same medications, and get more exercise because their insurance now pays a benefit for going to the gym. There were two unexpected benefits.

We feel more comfortable being in crowds at the grocery store, movie theaters, or in close quarters at the barber shop and hair salon, knowing everyone there has access to health care. That means everyone we deal with is less likely to be spreading infectious disease than they were three years ago.
We’ll feel even better when this year’s flu season comes around, since school children, teachers, bank tellers, store clerks and others dealing with the public can get the necessary vaccines or treatment to contain this year’s flu, no matter how rich or poor they may be.

Related posts:
Swine flu and hand washing: The how, the when, and the why
Swine flu, kids, and a “wash your hands” rap video
Preparing for the flu: Why don’t we do it in our sleeves?
Fear of flying: Will I catch swine flu on an airplane?
Swine flu parties for kids? Just say no
Flu news overdose


(Hover over book titles for more info. Links will open in a separate window or tab.)

William Yardley, 2,000 Washington State Students Report Signs of Swine Flu, The New York Times, September 5, 2009
Sewell Chan, Swine Flu Upsets Rituals of Greeting, The New York Times, September 3, 2009
Philip M. Tierno Jr. The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them, and How We Can Protect Ourselves Against Them
Paula Hartman Cohen, 10 Things You Need to Know about Health Care Reform, birdsonawire, August 18, 2009


Sorry, comments are closed for this post.