Master Life Faster: Newsletter

How to Not Get Sick This Winter

Posted in Newsletter by Paul Lem, M.D. on December 1, 2008

Volume 1, Issue 3
HEALTHY: Wash your hands
WEALTHY: The deadweight of Christmas
SOCIAL: Beware the beer goggles

“Medicine is the only profession that labors incessantly to destroy the reason for its own existence.”
-James Bryce

Wash Your Hands

sick-as-a-dogCough, sore throat, runny nose…these are the dreaded signs of the cold and flu season that starts in September and continues until March or April. Almost everyone has had a cold or flu at some point in their lives. The average adult suffers from 2-4 colds per year, compared to 6-10 colds per year for kids (germs spread easily in the close confines of daycare centers and schools). Colds are miserable and messy. So how can you break the cycle and not get sick this winter?

There are 4 main ways:

  1. Avoid sources of germs
  2. Wash your hands
  3. Don’t touch your eyes or nose
  4. Get the flu shot

At the University of Virginia, Birgit Winther and his team recruited 30 adults showing early symptoms of colds. Participants were asked to name 10 places in their home they had touched in the previous 18 hours. The researchers then used DNA tests to look for the cold virus. The results?

They found the cold virus on:

  • 3/3 salt and pepper shakers
  • 6/18 doorknobs
  • 8/14 refrigerator handles
  • 3/13 light switches
  • 6/10 TV remote controls
  • 8/10 bathroom faucets
  • 4/7 phones
  • 3/4 dishwasher handles

In other words, you should avoid touching anything that someone else could have touched. At the office, I use my sleeve to open doors and flick switches. In public bathrooms, I use a paper towel to open and close the taps.

No matter how hard you try, it’s inevitable that some germs will eventually get on your hands. After all, people expect you to shake hands when you meet them, and it’s not convenient to wear gloves all the time. That’s why it’s important to wash your hands whenever you’ve touched something that might be contaminated with germs. Yes, it takes a lot of effort. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of decongestants and mucus-filled Kleenexes. By the way, plain soap and water is all you need. According to researchers from the University of Michigan, there is no additional benefit from antibacterial soap. In fact, antibacterial soap may actually be harmful because it promotes antibiotic resistance.

Germs would not be a problem if they just stayed on your hands. But when you touch your eyes or nose, germs can enter your body and cause an infection. They make their way to the back of your throat and multiply rapidly. A few days later, you’re sick and lying in bed. The next time you get the urge to rub your eyes or scratch your nose, hold off until you can wash your hands (and remember to use your sleeve or a paper towel to turn off the tap so you don’t re-contaminate your clean hands).

Finally, the last defense is getting your flu shot. It prepares your immune system to fight off the flu viruses that make it into your body. Of course, the flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick. There are always some flu viruses not covered by the vaccine. Also, the flu accounts for only about 9 percent of upper respiratory tract infections (there is no vaccine yet against the hundreds of viruses that cause the common cold).

Nevertheless, researchers from the University of Toronto have shown that it is well worthwhile to get your flu shot. In 2000, the province of Ontario started offering free flu vaccines to anyone over 6 months of age. The number of people getting vaccinated increased 20 percentage points to 38 percent of the population. In turn, this led to significantly fewer flu-related deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency department visits, especially among the elderly. Even if you don’t feel like getting a flu shot, think of it as an early Christmas gift to your grandparents.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Common cold.

redOrbit. (2008). Cold germs lurk for days. October 29. Full Article.

Aiello AE, Larson EL, Levy SB. (2007). Consumer antibacterial soaps: effective or just risky? Clinical Infectious Diseases. 45: S137-47. Full Article.

Fendrick AM et al. (2003). The economic burden of non–influenza-related viral respiratory tract infection in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine. 163(4): 487-494. Full Article.

Kwong J et al. (2008). The effect of universal influenza immunization on mortality and health care use. PLoS Medicine. 5(10): 1440-1452. Full Article.

“The Christmas season has come to mean the period when the public plays Santa Claus to the merchants.”
-John Andrew Holmes

The Deadweight of Christmas

christmas-giftJoel Waldfogel is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. Over lunchtime conversations with his colleagues, he realized that gift-giving results in a mismatch between what the gift-giver thinks the recipient wants, and what the recipient actually wants. It’s what happens when your aunt buys you a brown sweater without knowing that you hate the color brown and the size is wrong. You end up stashing the sweater in the back of your closet, and wearing it only when your aunt stops by for a visit.

Based on surveys of college students, Waldfogel discovered that holiday gift-giving destroys 10 to 33 percent of the value of gifts. Gifts from close friends and partners were the most efficient, whereas gifts from distant relatives were the least efficient (people who know you best do a better job of guessing what you really want). This “deadweight loss of Christmas” represents billions of dollars of well-intentioned wastefulness.

This Christmas, do your friends and family a favor and give the gift of cash. If you want to be a bit more festive, follow the Chinese tradition of placing money in red envelopes. And don’t get sucked in by gift cards. Consumer Reports found that 27 percent of people had not used their gift cards nearly a year later. Over a third of respondents forgot about them, lost them, or the cards had expired.

For Canadians, an alternative gift for your kids is investing in a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP). The purpose of an RESP is to help you save money for your child’s college or university education. Your investment returns are tax-free in an RESP. Better yet, the government will top up your investment by 20 percent, up to a maximum of $500 per year. For example, if you invest $2,500 in an RESP for your child this year, the government will kick in an additional $500, bringing the total up to $3,000. This gift is the government’s way of encouraging more people to get a higher education. This holiday, drop by your bank or credit union and find out how easy it is to open up an RESP account.

References (2007). Avoid gift card pitfalls. December. Full Article.

Waldfogel J. (1993). The deadweight loss of Christmas. American Economic Review. 83(5): 1328-1336. Full Article.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.”
-Richard S. Friedman

Beware the Beer Goggles

beerOver the holidays, watch out for the “beer goggle effect.” In a study from the University of Bristol, researchers randomly assigned 84 heterosexual students to drink either a non-alcoholic lime-flavored drink, or an alcoholic drink with a similar flavor. The amount of alcohol was adjusted for body weight. The goal was to make the students a bit tipsy—they drank the equivalent of 1.5 pints of beer for someone who weighed 154 pounds.

After 15 minutes, students were asked to rate photographs of other young people. Compared to non-drinkers, men and women who had consumed alcohol rated the photos as being more attractive. For men rating women, the perceived increase in attractiveness lasted up to 24 hours.

What’s the take-home message? Get a sober second opinion before hooking up with someone after you’ve been drinking.

Parker LL et al. (2008). Effects of acute alcohol consumption on ratings of attractiveness of facial stimuli: evidence of long-term encoding. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 43(6): 636-640. Abstract.

Copyright 2008 by Paul Lem, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Posted to:

Have a Question or Comment?
Send an e-mail to:

Subscribe to Master Life Faster by E-mail:

Subscribe to the RSS feed: