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May 7th, 2009
11:39 AM ET

Does hand sanitizer kill bacteria and viruses?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers’ questions. Here’s a question for Dr. Gupta.

From CNN.com blogger, Dick:

"Hand sanitizer has been recommended but the bottles say, "Effective against bacteria," with no mention of viruses. What gives?"

Answer:

That is a good question. There are not a lot of data actually on how effective those sanitizers are against viruses. There have been some studies done over the years and the conclusion is washing your hands with soap and water is still probably the best idea. If you are having a busy day and it is hard to get to a sink, then carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer would be a good idea.

In essence, it makes your hands very inhospitable to viruses. You put it on your hands and viruses simply don't want to cling to it. So it does reduce the amount of a virus that can cling to your hand but it does not kill it. Alternatively, it also can’t harm you in any way. We get a lot of questions from concerned viewers asking if sanitizers could actually cause antibiotic resistance down the road. Many studies have looked into the issue and all evidence points to the answer being no.

At the end of the day, basic principles apply to avoid getting a virus. Avoid touching your mouth, eyes and nose as much as possible. If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve. If you're sick, stay home and avoid close contact with others. Some viruses can live for hours on surfaces such as ATMs, doorknobs, even money.

So be methodical about good hygiene, all year long! Remember that the number of 2009 H1N1 cases will most likely decrease over the summer months because viruses just don't transmit that well in the heat. But in the fall and winter, we're all going to have to remember what the new H1N1 strain was like and be extra vigilant so this doesn't get out of control.


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