Coronavirus and Washing Hands. What’s the Connection?

So, you must’ve heard people (from your prime minister to the distinguished scholars in Whatsapp university) telling you that you must wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Do you why you need to wash your hands or how that helps get rid of germs? Read on to know more.

How big is this coronavirus (SARS CoV-2)?

If it were big enough, it would be easy to fight it human-to-virus, but coronavirus, like all other viruses, is small. It’s around 230 times smaller in diameter than the average human skin cell. Check out this interactive (warning — it’s a wormhole and you might get stuck in there) to scale up and down from the universe to viruses to atoms.

What are these viruses doing inside my body?

They’re playing hide and seek. I’m not kidding. They enter your body and try to hide from your immune system because if they get caught, they’ll be eaten alive by your white blood cells, literally. Think of it as a trojan horse; lying in wait to strike at the opportune moment.

Okay, so what are they going to do next?

Here comes the technical part. Once a virus enters the body, it finds a suitable host to latch onto. In our case, it’s a human cell. A virus is made up of RNA/DNA (think of it as a biological program that tells a virus what it’s supposed to do), proteins (think of it as the virus’s heavy-lifting equipment), and a protective layer made of fat. So, in other good news, I’m not the only one insulated by a bit of fat.

And then?

As I mentioned earlier, all the heavy lifting is done by proteins. So, proteins create an entry into a cell, like a burglar breaking into a house. Once inside, the virus starts replicating its RNA, effectively ensuring duplicate copies of itself (explained in detail and very well in this post). Remember the size comparison? They’re tiny in comparison to our cells, so they make hundreds of copies using the cell as fodder and fuel. Once they’re done, they just burst out, leaving the cell dead. Zero gratitude. We are like “Atithi Devo Bhava” and they’re “Namak Haram”.

Do they always kill my cells?

Not always. Some viruses just leave the cell after they’ve sucked it of everything they could take, leaving it an empty shell (empty cell?). The cell is there, but it’s weakened to the point of being useless.

This is akin to the burglar breaking into your house, eating all your food, and reproducing for generations, and leaving the house. Eats, shoots, and leaves.

They also make my nose run. I hate that.

The good news? It’s because your immune system is working. Since the most common entry points are the mouth and the nose, coronaviruses (including SARS CoV-2) tend to hit the respiratory tract the hardest. They cozy up in there and start exploding cells.

The white blood cells (more specifically T-Cells and B-Cells) rush to battle these invaders and let out a battle cry. Your nose that already has a mucus lining starts generating more mucus to flush these out. Some run back toward your throat. The rest turns your nose drippy.

Is that why people get breathing problems? Because they swallow mucus?

Not really. The lungs are a part of the respiratory system. Once the coronaviruses are in the respiratory tract, they have a path to the lungs. Oxygen is a key ingredient to produce energy in your body and the cells that enable this are sitting in your lungs. Extreme damage there can be catastrophic. However, it’s not an easy path to the lungs. They have to fight a battle to get to the lungs. But once they are there, they can declare war on your body and cause havoc.

If there is such a strong defense system, why is my body losing?

There are a lot of reasons. Viruses tend to multiply quite rapidly, and the body’s immune system is overwhelmed and needs external support (hospitals, doctors, medicines, laughter). Sometimes, the immune system is weakened by our lifestyle choices (bad food habits, smoking, pollution). Sometimes, our bodies are fighting other raging battles elsewhere (cancer/tumors, TB, heart disease, recovery from surgery, diabetes) that an itch in the throat is low on the priority list. Sometimes, our immune system is suppressed by other medications that we are taking. Sometimes, our body’s immune system is weaker in our old age and tired waging war after war during a lifetime.

So, my body is still fighting these invaders?

Yes, yes. Your body is fighting these invaders. Everyone to their battle stations. Now, this is where you need to do the sensible thing and help yourself. Eat the right food, take your medications on time (if prescribed), drink fluids, and don’t do anything reckless that will need your army to divert its attention.

Is it true that viruses need me to stay alive?

Yes, and that’s good news. Viruses are very needy creatures. They can’t exist outside a living body for too long. According to a recent study, the virus was found to remain active for about 3 days at the most on surfaces such as plastic. On household surfaces such as wood, for even lesser time.

How do I get rid of the coronavirus from surfaces?

Use a 1–2 method. 1, clean the surface of any contaminants by wiping it down with soap and water. 2, use a disinfectant to clear any remaining germs.

If everything around me is disinfected, why do I need to wash my hands?

Where were your hands most recently? Tapping your phone screen? Opening the door? Holding on to the rails on an escalator? Tying your shoelaces? There are so many surfaces that cannot be disinfected constantly. You’d be surprised at the number of times you touch your face every day. Every nose itch, every “hmmm”, every yawn and sneeze, and more. And, once the virus is on your hands, it’s only one nose itch away from getting into your respiratory tract. So, wash your hands.

I heard that soap helps kill these viruses. Is that true?

Yes. The key is to wash your hands long enough (20+ seconds) so that all the germs on your hand in every nook and cranny are covered by soap.

I don’t believe you. How is it possible?

Do you remember that I told you about the viruses being protected by a fatty layer? The coronavirus is a bunch of proteins surrounding RNA living inside a fat bubble. And, your soap is what is going to prick this bubble. On coming in contact with soap, the fatty layer dissolves and the virus disintegrates. Think of what it did to your cell! This will be sweet revenge (if you’re using a fruity soap).

Can I drink soap or hand sanitizer to kill viruses?

No. It doesn’t work that way. Use it on your hands only. While drinking hand sanitizer may seem like a good idea because of its high alcohol content, it is highly poisonous.

Can I use regular soap or do I need special bacteria-killing soap?

Remember that the coronavirus is a virus and not bacteria. Regular soap will do. Plus, there’s no evidence to indicate that antibacterial soaps are more beneficial than regular soaps in dealing with bacteria either. In fact, they may be harmful because of their triclosan content.

You told me that alcohol kills coronaviruses. I’m low on handwash, can I use beer instead?

The average beer contains about 5% alcohol, with some going up to 20%. While this might give the fauna on your hands a mild buzz or hangover, it’s unlikely to knock them out and kill them. Since there’s no study on what hungover viruses can do, you can skip this option. The average hand sanitizer in comparison contains about 65% alcohol and goes up to about 95%.

Can I just use hand sanitizers instead of soap? I feel like a sanitizer shower.

No! Use hand sanitizers when you cannot get to soap or in certain cases (medically required) after washing your hands. Hand sanitizers are great if your hands are clean (not soiled, no dirt), but lose effectiveness if there’s other dirt on your hand.

I can flush down viruses into my stomach if I drink hot water!

No. Again, that’s not how it works. If it were that easy, then you wouldn’t need to wash your hands with soap. Also, what makes you think that flushing viruses down into your stomach is a good idea? Drinking hot water will at the most soothe your sore throat.

How about sanitizers then?

Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Don’t drunk dial me. Remember to wash your hands though.

I know it’s unrelated, but do I need to hoard toilet paper?

Masks and medicines, I understand. I don’t get the connection between a viral infection and toilet paper either. Anyway, at least in the Netherlands, you won’t be running out of toilet paper for another 10 years. That’s what the prime minister says. Maybe it’s time to consider a bidet?

karthickrichard
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