Shaking hands is back: how unsanitary is it to shake hands?

Sometimes it’s firm, sometimes rather slack – and after two years of the pandemic, above all, really unusual: the handshake is slowly returning to everyday life.

Many are now asking themselves: What do I take away from the greeting ritual – apart from a friendly hello? Do I have to worry about catching the corona virus or another pathogen 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 do not become 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 is from shaking hands naturally 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 the secretions he or she had coughed up or sneezed at.

So the risk is not zero, but rather low – at least when 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?

Peter Walger: 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 disease if they get into the body by some other route: through an injury, through an operation, if we breathe them into the lungs.

Or viruses that get into the nose and throat via the mucous membranes and lead to infections there.

The most advisable training program for the immune system is vaccination. A naturally occurring infection 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?

Peter Walger: Of course, you should wash your hands regularly in everyday life. This applies in general, without thinking of a specific pathogen. However, not everyone does this, as can be observed in every public toilet.

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However, washing your hands is particularly important after critical situations, for example if you 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 in the face. It’s easy to say, but difficult to do, but it can be practiced.

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