If you're looking for extra protection against swine flu, remember that not all health products live up to their ad copy. The Healthy Skeptic investigated four products that supposedly ward off the flu. The short story: We haven't really come all that far from the days of flu-fighting magnets.
Remi-D All Natural Hand Sanitizing Mist
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically recommends washing with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
LifeLogic Products urges another approach. Its Remi-D hand sanitizer contains benzalkonium chloride instead of alcohol, which has a reputation for drying the skin. Remi-D is sold at major drug store chains. You'll pay about $5 for a 4-ounce spray bottle.
The claims: The company website says that Remi-D hand sanitizer "kills 99.99% of germs, including nasty staph and MRSA." A company press release claimed that protection against swine flu "is as simple as flip, spray and rub your hands clean." In a phone interview, John Gentile, vice president of consumer sales, muddied the waters a bit by saying that "anyone who claims to prevent swine flu isn't telling the truth." Remi-D is just one way to lower the risk, he says.
The bottom line: The CDC recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers for a reason, says Dr. Don Goldmann, a professor of immunology, infectious diseases and epidemiology at Harvard University. Benzalkonium chloride doesn't work as well. Goldmann says the ingredient has fallen out of favor with doctors, partly because products were often contaminated with bacteria. (Not a good sign for a supposed germ killer.) "I would never have dreamt that anyone would resurrect it for a hand sanitizer," he said.
Today's alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't dry out the skin much anyway, says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, an infectious disease specialist at Yale University. "I may use hand sanitizer 30 to 40 times an hour. I never find my hands getting dried out."
To flu viruses and many other germs, the human nose is a warm, inviting entryway. NeilMed Pharmaceuticals encourages us to keep that entryway clean with Sinus Rinse, a "nasal wash" that comes with a nasal irrigator and packets of sodium chloride and sodium carbonate to be mixed with distilled water. Users are told to wash their nasal passages twice a day by squirting the solution into each nostril until it starts draining from the opposite nostril or the mouth. For the actress in the instructional video on the website, this seemed to be a relaxing, not-gross-in-any-way process. A 50-packet kit costs about $12.
The claims: The website claims that Sinus Rinse cleans "bacteria and viruses out of the nose, reducing the frequency of infection." In a press release, publicist Megan Licursi says that Sinus Rinse goes "above and beyond" the CDC's advice for preventing swine flu.
The bottom line: A few studies have found that saline sprays can help clear up runny noses in children and adults with colds. But, says Kahn, you could run a veritable garden hose through your sinuses and not deter flu viruses. "It's not going to protect you from infection," he says. And if you're already infected, rinsing the nose won't speed recovery or relieve symptoms beyond the nose, he adds.
Sick kids will cough, sneeze and drip on every item in the house until everybody else is sick, too. The CDC recommends coughing into the elbow, but not many 5-year-olds have received that memo. Now you can equip the little flu factories in your life with a Germy Wormy, a disposable sleeve (made of the material found in disposable diapers) that fits over a child's elbow. Each sleeve is printed with the eponymous cartoon worm. Parents are instructed to tell their coughing children, "Let's give those germs to Germy Wormy. He is sooo hungry!" You can buy a pack of 25 sleeves for about $10 from the website. The instructional DVD costs another $10.
The claims: The website says that Germy Wormy "makes coughing and sneezing into [the] elbow fun!" A late-April press release said that the swine flu outbreak underscored the value of the "germ-catching sleeves."
Company founder Margaret Back of Menifee, Calif., says she hasn't had a cold since her 6-year-old daughter started wearing Germy Wormies two years ago. Before that, she told her daughter to cough on her shirt. "I started using Germy Wormy so I wouldn't have to change her shirts five times a day," Back says.
The bottom line: If a person has to cough, the elbow is a great place to do it, Goldmann says, and the disposable sleeves might help stop the spread of flu if they encourage kids to cover their coughs. But once a kid has gotten into that habit, Goldmann doesn't see an advantage to wearing a Germy Wormy. Germs don't live long on fabrics; any germ that lands on a real sleeve isn't likely to infect anyone else.
Ceiling fans are handy for moving around air and mesmerizing small children, but can they also help prevent swine flu? The Healthy Fan comes equipped with UV-C bulbs designed to kill germs that drift by. You can buy the three-speed, 52-inch model online for about $300.
The claims: The website says that the Healthy Fan can achieve a "99% reduction in airborne bacteria and viruses." Publicist Bob Szafranski says the fan can "sanitize" a house within 15 minutes, making it an especially valuable weapon against swine flu.
Dr. John Zak, the company president, took a more reserved approach. "We don't present this as something that prevents or mitigates any disease," he says. "People still have to wash their hands."
The bottom line: There's no doubt that UV-C light can kill flu viruses and other germs, Kahn says. But the bulbs have to be very close to the germs to have much killing power.
A 2007 study concluded that a combination of fans and UV light can kill bacteria and viruses, but only if the room gets little outside air and the fans create a strong flow of air toward the ceiling.
The virus-filled droplets that spread flus don't hang in the air long and certainly don't spend much time floating near the ceiling, Kahn says, so even with a fan at full blast, the bulbs probably wouldn't zap enough germs to reduce the risk of flu, let alone "sanitize" a house. "I would be very reluctant to use one of these and very skeptical about how well they work."
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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC: Swine flu special!