Feature Archive

Presidential Advice: Shake Off a Cold

Experts say shaking hands can transmit germs. Here's how we -- and our presidential candidates -- can stay healthy and friendly.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

According to legend, lore, and some fact, President Theodore Roosevelt may well have been the downright friendliest U.S. president we've ever had. One reason: On New Year's Day 1907, he set what was then -- and may still be -- the world record for the number of handshakes in a single day -- 8,150 to be exact.

According to those following the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry, there could soon be a new world record: Both men, it seems, are extremely fond of this traditional political "vote for me" greeting.

The problem however -- in Roosevelt's day as well as now -- is that handshaking isn't exactly the healthiest way to win an election. Indeed, if experts are right, as we cruise head-on into cold and respiratory virus season, both Kerry and Bush could end up spending Election Day home in bed with the sniffles -- or worse -- as a result of those pre-election handshakes.

"Eighty percent of all infectious diseases are transmitted by contact both direct and indirect -- direct such as kissing, indirect such as shaking someone's hand," says Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center.

Though the germs don't ooze from our pores, he says, covering your mouth when you cough, wiping your nose with a tissue, even failing to wash your hands after using the bathroom can all leave germs on your skin that can get passed on during a handshake.

"If you eat or drink something without washing your hands, or if you touch your own nose, mouth, or eyes after shaking someone's hand, you can introduce whatever germ was on their hand, and now your hand, into the portals of your body," says Tierno.

Indeed, hand-to-hand contact can be such a potent way of passing germs that the CDC issued a special advisory which reads, in part, "The most important thing that you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands."

Tierno agrees: "Frequent hand washing is the single most important weapon we have against disease."

You certainly won't get any arguments from billionaire real estate mogul and author Donald Trump. A self-confessed "clean freak," the star of The Apprentice made headlines a few years back when, while toying with the idea of running for president himself, he admitted there would be no hand shaking at Camp Donald unless he could wash his hands after every shake.

But what if the campaign trail doesn't lead a candidate to soap and water? Well, all you presidential wannabes can steal a page from George W. Bush's Republican diary and use a soap-free, water-free, alcohol-based skin sanitizer -- a liquid cleanser that you rub into your hands to kill germs. Indeed, during the hand-shaking furor of the 2000 presidential campaign, spokesman Scott McClellan told WebMD that Bush had been known to rely on a "hand sanitizer before he eats something," who also added that the president does, in fact, enjoy pumping the hands of constituents.

Apparently a bipartisan solution, former Democratic President Bill Clinton -- a notorious hand-shaker -- has also been known to use a hand-sanitizing product when out in a crowd.

Hand Washing Best for Preventing Illness

Though experts say the sanitizers can help reduce contamination, they don't replace good old-fashioned hand washing as a way to protect your health.

"Do not underplay the importance of washing your hands. If you shake a lot of hands you still have to make sure you wash your own before touching your face or eating anything," Tierno tells WebMD.

When it comes to the repetitive stress and strain of all those handshakes, it's not hard to imagine just how sore a candidate's hand can get at the end of an election season. But according to hand specialist Mark Pruzansky, MD, it's not likely that either Bush or Kerry will have any problems lifting that all-important right hand when it comes time to take the presidential oath.

"Unless there is a previous injury to the arm or shoulder -- like some form of tendinitis -- then it's highly unlikely that even extended hand shaking is going to cause them any problems," Pruzansky tells WebMD. If there is a previous injury however -- remember Bush's dirt bike tumble this summer, as well as Kerry's frequent football skirmishes -- then, says Pruzansky, all that vote-getting flesh pressing could pose a few problems.

"Because handshaking does involve some repetitive motions, it can inflame an old injury, and that, in turn, could result in some pain or stiffness in the arm by the end of the campaign," says Pruzansky.