Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: hygiene

Sharpies don't spread germs, people do

October 23, 2008 |  1:07 pm

Anyone who has had surgery or watched those medical reality shows knows that before patients go under the knife, they’re often written on first with a marker to denote where the surgeon will cut. Bodies end up looking like a cross between a bull's-eye and a topographical map.

SharpieDoctors typically use special one-use pens designed for surgery that contain gentian violet, an anti-fungal agent, or Sharpies. Problem is, because of fears of bacterial contamination between patients, the Sharpies, which contain alcohol that can kill bacteria, are also tossed after one use. Even at about a buck a pop, it adds up over time.

That prompted a Canadian surgeon at the University of Alberta to ask a colleague to find out whether both kinds of pens harbor bacteria after one use. That colleague was Dr. Sarah Forgie, associate professor of pediatrics, faculty of medicine and dentistry, who supervised the study also worked on by resident Dr. Catherine Burton. They quickly got to the bottom of things.

Forgie knew the Sharpies contained alcohol, because, she says, "One of my kids used them to color all over my white kitchen cabinets." In determining how to remove the unwanted illustrations (she said Formula 409 worked pretty well) she learned the ingredients.

Pens were tested by contaminating them with four different types of bacteria (in quantities greater than would be found on human skin) commonly found in operating rooms, including two superbugs. They were then left out for varying time periods, from five minutes to a week. None of the Sharpies showed traces of bacteria, but the surgical pens did. Forgie notes that although the Sharpie marker nib itself doesn’t transmit bacteria, the outside of the marker still needs to be sterilized before using it again, like any other surgical instrument. To quell any lingering doubts, parent company Newell Rubbermaid did not fund the study.

Burton is presenting the work at the Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting in Washington, D.C., that begins Saturday.

The findings could save hospitals and patients some bucks — maybe thousands a year. And in these days of high healthcare costs, every little bit helps.

Says Forgie, "It’s such a funny, simple little study, but it seems to make a big difference."

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Bill Waugh / AP

Mouthwashes...they work! (Spread the word.)

October 8, 2008 |  4:37 pm

Swirling a mouthwash around your mouth may really make your breath smell sweeter, according to a review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a body of scientists that assess medical evidence. In their report, released this week, the scientists reviewed five research trials involving 293 people. Among their findings:

* Antibacterial mouth rinses containing the antibacterial chemicals chlorhexidine and cetylpyridinium were better than placebos at making breath less smelly;

* So were mouth rinses containing chlorine dioxide and zinc, which work by neutralizing the chemicals in breath that make it smelly -- sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulphide;

* Though the two categories both performed well, a potential drawback to the chlorhexidine ones were that mouths and teeth were temporarily stained and the sense of taste was temporarily altered;

* For all the excited articles they inspire in the press, so-called "electronic noses" are not as good at assessing the offensiveness of breath as the good old human nose, the team concluded -- and thus the human type should remain the "gold standard" for such tests. 

Want to learn more about bad breath? Lean close, and we'll breathily whisper some good links in your ear: halitosis at the Mayo Clinic, how to test your own breath, a halitosis movie (!) from the American Dental Assn. and a veritable cornucopia of halitosis science  including such classic papers as "Therapeutic Approaches to Morning Breath,"  "Assessing the Contribution of the Tongue to Oral Malodor," and other treats besides.

-- Rosie Mestel

When searching for a pet, consider the lowly rock

October 6, 2008 |  2:32 pm

Having trouble deciding on just the right animal to stop the endless chorus of "Please, can we get a pet? Please, please?" Think a dog or cat is too much trouble? Add the journal Pediatrics to your consult-before-buying reading list.

A report in the October issue acknowledges that being around animals can be good for kids -- providing educational opportunities and all that -- and then details the many, many ways such exposures can go horribly wrong. The authors focus specifically on what it terms nontraditional pets (various rodents, reptiles, nonhuman primates and the like) and those animals found in public settings such as petting zoos and parks.

The potential problems, in short:

Reptiles: salmonella infection.

Rodents: salmonella, plague, anthrax, tularemia, ringworm and assorted parasites. The hedgehog comes in for special criticism -- Beatrix Potter be hanged -- because of those spines. Turns out, they can break skin, allowing microbes to enter more easily.

Nonhuman primates: herpes B infections that can cause fatal meningoencephalitis. Don't get hung up on the "meningoencephalitis." "Fatal" is the operative word.

Then there are the petting zoos and exhibits. The related risks include injuries of various stripes, allergies and sure, rabies.

The authors, who clearly are not fans of nontraditional pets and don't pretend to be, refer to various guidelines and safety measures. They also conclude that pediatricians and veterinarians should weigh in on pet selection. Perhaps carelessly, however, they neglect to recommend the merits of a pet rock -- usually only a danger if large and owned by an older sibling.

-- Tami Dennis

Better get your fish pedicure soon

October 2, 2008 |  4:26 pm

Fish pedicures -- wherein customers put their feet in pools of carp that feed off the dead skin and leave feet silky smooth -- have just been declared illegal in Washington state, according to an article in the Seattle Times. The one known salon where you can get this done in that state has been informed of the Department of Licensing's decision by hand-carried letter. The Seattle Times quotes licensing department spokeswoman Christine Anthony as saying the live fish can't be sanitized: "You can clean the tank, you can clean the water, but there's no guarantee that the fish aren't carrying something from the previous customer."

Yes, yes, we see their point. But ... check out the video of a fish pedicure in progress.

-- Rosie Mestel


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