As the holiday season approaches, there's no greater gift than the chance to gather together with friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, it's nearly as easy to spread an illness at a holiday party as it is to spread good cheer. Who hasn't visited relatives and caught the nasty head cold pinging among the nieces and nephews?
Well, not Karen Alelis or Marilynn Bernstein. Both Alelis and Bernstein work for the Bergen Department of Health Services, Alelis as the county's epidemiologist and Bernstein as, among other things, a nurse and health educator. They are experts at keeping germs at bay.
• Wash hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds (equal to two rounds of "Happy Birthday").
• Rub between your fingers and under nail beds.
• Rinse under running water.
• Dry with a clean towel or air dry.
• Don't touch the faucet afterward; use a paper towel to turn it off.
According to both women, proper hygiene is the most crucial determinant for stopping the spread of all sorts of germs – from the bacteria that originates in food itself to the winter colds and stomach bugs you might not even know you are harboring.
"A lot of it comes down to basic hand washing," Bernstein says. "It really seems simple, but it's the best way to keep people from getting sick." According to Alelis, the friction from rubbing helps eliminate the germs, so scrub well and then rinse thoroughly. The soap helps the germs slide off your hands.
A careful hostess will make sure all surfaces used to prepare food are kept clean, including washing the food prep area with hot, soapy water and rinsing thoroughly. That should be repeated at regular intervals while cooking.
And don't forget to keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from ready-to-eat food, including fruits and vegetables. Even if meat harbors some nasty bacteria, it should be safe to eat as long as it's cooked thoroughly. But you can still get sickened by the same bullet you dodged by, say, munching on a raw veggie that was cut on the same board used to slice raw meat. That's why separate cutting boards are a must, Alelis says.
Since dangerous food-borne pathogens thrive best at room temperature, the FDA has a two-hour rule, stating that you shouldn't keep food out for more than two hours at a time. Better yet, Alelis says, "keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold" so pathogens don't get a chance to breed.
Another obvious, but often ignored, rule of thumb is not to host – or attend – a party if you feel sick. Even if you've been really looking forward to seeing Great-Aunt Florence for months, it's more important to make sure your fragile favorite aunt doesn't catch your kid's respiratory ailment.
Of course, if you find yourself among loved ones while feeling sniffly, don't forget to cover your coughs and sneezes, and for heavens sake, wash your hands like a demon! Happily, Bernstein says, "even if someone who is preparing food is getting sick (and doesn't know it), chances are they will not spread [the illness] if they use proper hygiene."
And that's a good thing, because you can never be sure whether you can spread an illness until symptoms appear and you know what the illness is, Alelis says. Sometimes you can be contagious without being sick yourself – either because a virus is incubating or its symptoms have cleared, or because you're a carrier – but you can still spread the germs!