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Will Hand Sanitiser Help Me Avoid Catching Coronavirus? 5 surprising facts - Canstar

Will Hand Sanitiser Help Me Avoid Catching Coronavirus? 5 surprising facts - Canstar


Will Hand Sanitiser Help Me Avoid Catching Coronavirus? 5 surprising facts - Canstar

Posted: 07 Feb 2020 12:00 AM PST

Fears of contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) have sent the price of hand sanitiser skyrocketing, as supermarkets warn that stocks are low. However, is it really that effective against viruses? And is it value for money? Here are five surprising facts about hand sanitiser.

Alcohol-based hand sanitiser may help to limit the spread of coronavirus
Source: Tradol (Shutterstock)

As the number of novel coronavirus infections rises across the world, people are reaching for hand sanitisers to try and prevent its spread. The World Health Organisation (WHO) – which recently declared the virus an international public health emergency – has issued a list of preventative measures, including a recommendation for people to clean their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub, commonly known as hand sanitiser.

This has triggered a mad dash for the product and Australian retailers such as Coles and Chemist Warehouse have listed warnings on their websites, suggesting that their stocks are running low due to unprecedented demand. The prices of the liquid gels have doubled at some retailers, as stocks dwindle across the country.

A screenshot of Coles Online's warning to customers about low supplies of hand sanitiser products, taken 7 January, 2020. Image: Canstar
A screenshot of Coles Online's warning to customers about low supplies of hand sanitiser products, taken 7 January, 2020. Image: Canstar

With hand sanitiser-fever in full swing around the country, we did some digging and found some surprising facts about the lotions boasting to be bug killers:

1. Washing your hands is the best defence

While it may seem simple, thoroughly washing your hands with soap under running water is generally considered best practice. The WHO recommends washing your hands regularly and using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser only if soap and water are not available.

The US-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends the use of soap and water whenever possible, as it is the most effective method for removing all types of germs from your hands. That's because, according to the CDC, while alcohol-based sanitiser quickly reduces the number of microbes on your hands in some situations, the liquid doesn't eliminate all germs. And soap and water can be more effective at removing certain kinds of germs and viruses, such as vomiting and diarrhoea culprits cryptosporidium, norovirus and clostridium difficile.

2. The label 'antibacterial' or 'antimicrobial' does not always mean it works better

Although it sounds good, hand-sanitisers that claim to be 'antibacterial or 'antimicrobial' may not be as effective and could even possibly be worse for your health than other hand sanitisers, according to some studies.

Firstly, using antibacterial sanitiser can kill the good bacteria on your hands as well as the bad, which could potentially lower your resistance to disease. And overexposure to antibiotics in general may lead to bacterial resistance and the formation of 'superbugs'. Superbugs have evolved to resist many types of antibacterials, which is why alcohol-based sanitisers are now used in clinical settings such as hospitals.

Thirdly, an active ingredient in many antibacterial and antimicrobial products is triclosan. While it is already banned for use in over-the-counter consumer products in America, triclosan can be found in many Australian household products, including toothpaste and antibacterial soaps and hand sanitisers. It is controversial because the effects of the agent on hormonal balance and bacterial resistance are relatively unknown and it has even been linked to a higher risk of osteoporosis in women, in recent medical studies.

3. Products with at least 60% alcohol tend to work best

If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that is at least 60% alcohol is the most effective way to kill germs, according to the Australian Department of Health. Sanitisers that contain less than 60% alcohol are less likely to work equally on all types of germs and generally only minimise the growth of bacteria, rather than eliminating germs completely.

According to research conducted by the University of Toronto, 70% alcohol concentrate is the most effective, more so than 90%, as water can help the alcohol in a hand sanitiser to better penetrate germ cells. Another thing to keep in mind is that alcohol-based hand sanitisers primarily contain ethanol, which can cause alcohol poisoning if swallowed. Sanitisers that are attractively packaged or scented may be particularly tempting for young children, so use them with parental supervision.

4. It won't work if your hands are dirty or greasy

While hand sanitisers have proven to successfully combat germs in clinical environments such as hospitals, they are less effective if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. 'Real world' scenarios like eating or handling food, going to the gym or gardening may reduce the effectiveness of hand sanitiser, and in these cases washing your hands with soap and water will probably be more effective.

5. You have to let it dry completely

Hand-sanitiser needs to be applied correctly for it to effectively kill germs and eliminate them from your hands. Not applying an adequate amount or accidentally wiping it off before it has dried are common causes of sanitiser misuse. The CDC recommends following the label of your hand sanitiser to determine the correct amount needed and covering all surfaces of both hands when you apply it until they are dry.

Where can I find hand sanitiser?

Alcohol-based hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol can ordinarily be bought from most supermarkets and chemists in Australia. Specific stores that stock hand sanitiser products include:

  • Amazon
  • Coles
  • Woolworths
  • Chemist Warehouse
  • Catch.com.au

However, bear in mind that due to increased demand caused by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, many of these stores may have limited supply, while some products may have sold out.

Worried about coronavirus? These articles could be of interest: 

Coronavirus: how to protect yourself and others, plus what protective measures don't work - Which?

Posted: 30 Mar 2020 12:03 PM PDT

Last updated: 7 April 2020

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread, we've rounded up the key information you need to know to help protect yourself and others.

Here, we explain what you can do to protect against infection, which products are unlikely to help and what you should do if you develop symptoms.


Latest updates:

  • The UK is officially in lockdown. This means that you should only leave the house to exercise alone (once a day), to buy food or medicine (as infrequently as possible), for essential work that can't be done at home or to care for vulnerable people.
  • When out you should aim to social distance at all times (stay at least two metres away from other people) and wash your hands thoroughly once home.
  • Anyone with a cough or fever should completely self-isolate at home for seven days (not even going out for food or medicine, if possible) and the rest of the household should also self-isolate for 14 days.
  • It is increasingly clear that the second week of the illness is where there is potential for symptoms to worsen. Do contact the NHS promptly and seek help if you start to feel worse, not better.
  • The NHS is encouraging people to use its coronavirus status checker to help it track the spread of the virus. UK medical researchers have also launched a COVID-19 symptom reporting app.

Coronavirus latest – get straight to the latest news and advice from our money, travel and health experts


What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the name of the illness caused by a type of coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans. It's part of the same virus family as the common cold and more serious diseases such as SARS.

The main symptoms are fever, followed by a dry cough, which may then develop into shortness of breath.

Loss of smell and taste may also be markers of infection from COVID-19 (though these can also be symptoms of a common cold).

In most cases, symptoms are mild. Some people may even be unaware they have it and have no significant symptoms. This is one of the reasons the disease may have been able to spread so quickly and why it has proven difficult to contain.

Even people who are totally asymptomatic can still be contagious for a period of time. That's why it's important for everyone to be diligent with social distancing and hand hygiene.

Coronavirus vs cold and flu: recognising symptoms

The novel coronavirus shares some overlapping symptoms with the common cold and seasonal flu.

Symptoms vary person to person, so it can be difficult to distinguish between this new respiratory disease and the ones we are more familiar with.

It's particularly tough to distinguish between a mild case of COVID-19 and a more severe cold. But here are some key markers of each to help give you an idea:

Cold Symptoms usually come on gradually, affects mainly your nose and throat, makes you feel unwell but not severely exhausted.

Flu Appears more quickly and affects more than just your nose and throat (commonly high fever, aches and pains, more severe exhaustion).

COVID-19 Fever and a dry cough are the most common / notable symptoms, appearing in 88% and 68% of cases respectively according to WHO data on confirmed cases, followed by sputum production, and shortness of breath.

What is a persistent or continuous cough?

The cough associated with coronavirus will be newly developed, and is usually continuous – ie you start coughing repeatedly, and you may not have any respite from the cough during the day.

It's important to self-isolate for seven days if you exhibit symptoms of cold, flu or COVID-19.

What can you do to help protect against coronavirus?

It's not yet known exactly how coronavirus spreads or how long it can live outside the body on surfaces.

Similar viruses are spread via cough and sneeze droplets, but don't last a long time outside the body. Therefore, the best advice is to be vigilant about hygiene as you would with a normal cold or flu, and avoid other people if you're feeling unwell.

There are many products out there that claim to kill 'germs', but these aren't always strictly necessary or indeed effective with viruses.

Practice good hygiene

This is the most important, basic advice you can follow. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or if you don't have access to this use hand sanitiser gel.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – if your hands touch an infected surface this could transfer it into your body.
  • Don't get too close to people coughing, sneezing or with a fever. The NHS says keep two metres away.

In addition, if you are feeling unwell:

  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing – ideally with a tissue – and wash your hands afterwards to prevent the virus spreading. If caught short, use your elbow rather than your hands.
  • Throw used tissues away promptly.

It's a good idea to wash your hands if you have to commute or visit busy public spaces, as germs may be present on shared surfaces on buses, trains and at stations.

You can find more advice and frequently asked questions on the WHO coronavirus public advice page.

Hygiene around the home and at work

To clean effectively in your home or around you at work, concentrate on the 'superhighways' that spread pathogens. So your hands, the surfaces you regularly touch (especially food prep areas and keyboards or computer mice) and anything that could spread bacteria, such as kitchen cloths or sponges.

When cleaning your house, pay particular attention to the kitchen and toilet. Also, make sure you dry worktops and chopping boards after cleaning: dampness helps bacteria survive and multiply. Be sure to wash your hands before food prep.


Worried about germs at home? Find out more about home hygiene


Is it worth buying things such as hand sanitiser gel, surgical masks and 'immune defence' vitamins?

Products such as hand sanitiser gel and surgical masks are selling out worldwide due to fears over coronavirus, but do you really need them?

We run through some of the popular options and whether they are actually worth tracking down or not.

Antibacterial products

We've found that many products with antibacterial claims aren't necessarily better than old-fashioned soap and water. For example, as long as you're washing your hands thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds) you don't really need to buy a hand soap with specific antibacterial claims.

Many products that are marketed as antibacterial will have no impact against common viruses such as norovirus or the common cold, and so may have limited effectiveness against coronavirus.

Hand sanitiser gel

Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water is the best option. However, the WHO does say that antibacterial hand gel can help kill viruses and it can be a convenient option if you have to go outdoors.

You might be hard-pushed to find any at the moment, though, as it's in high demand and is either out of stock or low in stock at most major high street retailers.

We checked major retailers, including Boots, Superdrug, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Wilko and Waitrose, and found that most had sold out online and across many stores. Boots has now put a limit on the amount that one customer can buy at a time and other stores are following suit.

On Amazon, reports of price-gouging prompted the company to remove 'tens of thousands' of overpriced products from its site – but we've still spotted some examples, including multipacks of Carex hand sanitizer for about 10 times the normal price.

How to find hand sanitiser

Your best bet is to ask your local stores when they restock, and try and be there when they do, or check with the big supermarkets and pharmacy brands to see if you can order some online or click and collect.

If you can't find any hand sanitiser, don't panic, and don't pay over-inflated amounts for it online, particularly from unknown retailers on sites such as Amazon and eBay. Aim instead to stick to the advice above about not touching your face and wash your hands regularly.

While possible, it's not recommended to try and make your own hand sanitiser, as it's hard to be sure you have the correct concentration of alcohol to be effective and adding too much could irritate your hands. It's also hard to get hold of the raw ingredients needed to do so.

How to use hand sanitiser properly

If you are using hand sanitiser, do it correctly:

  • Your hands should not be visibly dirty, this renders the gel less effective
  • Hands need to be dry for the gel to work properly
  • Hand gels need at least 60% alcohol content to be most effective
  • Cover the entirety of both hands with the gel and rub until dry

Regularly applying hand sanitiser is likely to dry out your hands, so make sure you also carry a good hand moisturiser with you.

Antibacterial wipes

A shortage of hand sanitiser gels may prompt you to reach for antibacterial wipes, but these may not be very effective if their ethanol content is not high enough, which is the case for many brands.

A study from Northumbria University in 2018 found that antibacterial surface wipes may be a waste of money as bugs can grow back on surfaces within 20 minutes. Again, the conclusion was that good old-fashioned soap and water was the most effective way to break down the cell walls of harmful bacteria and virus membranes.

For more advice on which hand sanitisers and soaps to use – see our full guide to soap and hand sanitiser.

Surgical masks

The debate about whether or not masks should be worn by the general public has gained steam as the pandemic develops. Research is ongoing as to whether more widespread use of masks beyond people with symptoms and healthcare workers should be encouraged.

The current advice is that while surgical masks may have some effectiveness in blocking liquid droplets, they don't block smaller airborne particles that can still spread illness. They are also considered more useful in this context for protecting others from you, than you from other people.

New research about the use of masks has been prompted by some studies showing that the virus might be able to travel further in the air than previously thought, and some European countries are now encouraging their use among the public.

The NHS and Public Health England say that while masks are very important in hospital settings (or if you're looking after someone who is unwell), there is limited evidence that they're of widespread benefit to the general public.

And they're only effective if used correctly – worn properly, changed frequently and in combination with frequent handwashing. Some suggest they can actually make it more likely you touch your face as you adjust the mask. If you do decide to use one, check WHO advice on using a mask properly.

Bear in mind that some senior health professionals are calling on the public not to buy surgical masks, particularly not the N95 type masks, which need to be specially fitted anyway, as this creates a shortage for front-line health workers where there is a legitimate need for their use.

Nasal defence sprays

Products such as Vicks First Defence nasal spray claim to trap and neutralise viruses in the nose before they have a chance to develop and spread.

Currently, the jury is out on their effectiveness and evidence is still limited, but it's possible they could act as a prophylactic for a short period of time.

Specialised 'immune defence' vitamins

Some stores are touting specialised 'Immune Defence' vitamins as a way to protect yourself against illness.

A lot of these vitamin products will be similar to a regular multivitamin or probiotics, which we've found to have limited evidence behind them in building disease immunity. Targeted vitamins and supplements are usually more expensive, too.

There is some evidence that vitamin C can help against the common cold if taken before symptoms present, but there is no evidence that it has an impact against COVID-19.

Indeed, there is currently no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus, so treat any such claims with scepticism.

If you're concerned, the best defense is to aim to maintain a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, get enough sleep, exercise where possible and try to avoid stress or watching too much news coverage about coronavirus that could make you anxious.

Chloroquine and hydroxycholoroquine for COVID-19

Two antimalarial drugs – chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – are among the medicines being investigated as possible treatments for COVID-19. But it's important to note that they are not yet proven in the treatment for coronavirus and clinical trials are still ongoing.

A UK pharmacist told us that they had experienced customers trying to obtain chloroquine for COVID-19. This is not possible as these drugs are only licensed for sale as an antimalarial and their potential effectiveness against coronavirus is unproven.

Both drugs can have severe side effects, and have a wide range of toxic and lethal doses, which is why their use for other ailments is usually carefully overseen by healthcare professionals.

Attempts by the public to obtain these drugs for COVID-19 treatment is also causing troubling medicine shortages for people who are already taking them for different, authorised reasons, including people with the auto-immune disease lupus.

Developing coronavirus symptoms: what to do

If you develop symptoms similar to those listed above head to the official NHS coronavirus advice page to find out what you should do.

This is constantly being updated and gives the latest health advice, answering common questions and concerns, and advising on how to stay mentally and physically healthy while at home.

Currently, the NHS says not to visit your GP or pharmacy if you have symptoms, and instead stay at home and completely self-isolate for seven days (under the latest lockdown rules, we should all be staying at home and social distancing where possible anyway).

If you live with other people, they should also self-isolate for 14 days from the day the first person in your household got symptoms.

If they develop symptoms in this time, they should then self-isolate for seven days from the time they first got symptoms, even if this means they end up staying home longer than 14 days.

Coronavirus testing

The government is no longer asking people to report milder COVID-19 symptoms and get tested. Only patients who meet suitable criteria and are in hospital will be tested.

Public Health England announced in late March that a home finger prick test was in the final stages of evaluation and could be rolled out – first to key workers and then potentially more widely – within the week.

The test would be able to tell people whether they'd already had the COVID-19 infection, and assist hugely in an eventual return to life as normal.

It is hoped that the results could reveal how many people are getting the virus without symptoms, and – in the first stage of roll out – let NHS nurses and doctors know whether they are immune.

However, so far it has proved unreliable in trials.

Find out more in our full story on coronavirus home testing kits.

NHS introduces coronavirus tracking tool

The NHS is now asking people experiencing potential coronavirus symptoms to report these on its Coronavirus Status Checker.

It says this will 'help the NHS to plan its response to the outbreak, indicating when and where more resources like oxygen, ventilators and additional staff might be needed and provide valuable insight into the development and progression of the virus across the country.'

There is also a COVID-19 symptom reporting app, launched by UK medical researchers at King's College London, Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals in partnership with health data science developer ZOE, in which you can submit daily health updates, whether or not you are displaying symptoms.

You won't find out if you have it, but your updates can help researchers track the spread and prevalence of the virus, and better understand its nature.

Bear in mind that some privacy experts have expressed concern about the speed at which the app has been created, and that privacy concerns with sensitive personal data may not have been properly taken account of.

Experts warn against using Ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory painkillers

Medical professionals have warned that common anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen, naproxen and voltarol may not be suitable for use if you're trying to treat the fever associated with COVID-19.

While there is currently no evidence that taking ibuprofen makes the symptoms of novel coronavirus worse (and stories circulating around social media to this effect are false), there is some evidence that ibuprofen can contribute to complications from other respiratory infections.

A pharmacist we spoke to told us: 'The body's immune response to virus attack is an inflammatory process which this class of drug inhibits. Paracetamol has no anti-inflammatory action, yet reduces pain and raised temperature. In my practice, paracetamol is always first-choice recommendation in these circumstances.'

The NHS recommends drinking plenty of fluids and using paracetamol to calm a fever.

What if your symptoms don't improve after seven days?

If you begin to feel very unwell during the seven days, use the NHS 111 COVID-19 emergency online service to find out what to do next. If you can't use this service, then call NHS 111 instead.

If you still have a fever after seven days, the NHS advises staying home until you no longer have a fever and contacting NHS 111.

If your fever has improved but you still have a cough, it says you don't need to continue staying at home, as these can persist after an infection.

However, as we are now in a lockdown, you should continue to practice social distancing and only leave home for essential journeys or supplies.

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