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Handwashing, Drinking Water, And Being Old—The Science Behind Protecting Yourself From COVID-19

How effective is handwashing? Will drinking lots of water help? Are you more susceptible to catch the virus if you’re older? Read on to find out!

With local cases of COVID-19 increasing by the day, and more preventive measures put into place by both public and private entities, we, ourselves, must also start to become more aware of the things we do and the situations that we are in to protect ourselves from the virus. The virus may have already affected more than 116,000 people all over the world to date, but it’s information and vigilance that will be our biggest line of defense against the outbreak.


We’ve heard about the magic of handwashing, we’ve been advised to stay hydrated, and we’ve seen in the numbers that older people are more prone to contracting the virus. But what is the science behind these? We tackle these three issues to help you stay on top of your health against COVID-19.

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Handwashing with soap is your best friend

“You would be amazed at how efficient handwashing can be,” says Dr. Patrick Gonzalez, who is currently based at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, one of the health research facilities at the forefront of our country’s defense and containment response to COVID-19.


How exactly does handwashing help in preventing COVID-19 from spreading? In a nutshell, a virus like COVID-19 is made up of three key building blocks: RNA, proteins, and lipids. The RNA holds the genetic material of the virus. The proteins aid in the replication of the virus when it enters a target cell. The lipids form a sort of shell or coating to protect the virus and help it penetrate our skin.


CDC


This trinity structure of the virus enables it to be transmitted through droplets or fomites. Dr. Gonzalez explains, “Droplets are oronasal (meaning from either the mouth or nose) secretions released into the air each time a person takes a breath, sneezes, expectorates, or coughs. These usually travel at a distance of 6 feet. A fomite is any object possibly contaminated with the virus that can transmit it through physical contact. Think of it as ‘indirect contact.’ An example would be handrails touched or sneezed on by someone sick. The droplets fall on the handrail and the virus may persist. If someone healthy happens to touch the handrail and then rub their eyes or nose, they can contract the virus.”


Right now, according to Gan Kim Yong, Singapore’s Minister for Health, they believe that COVID-19 can stay active in surfaces for days. So imagine if a contaminated person sneezes or touches a surface, and you then touch that said surface, and then you touch your face. Did you know that we unconsciously touch our face every two to five minutes? Imagine how easily you’re at risk to contract the virus if you don’t wash your hands frequently!


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The power of soap now comes into play because soap contains fat-like substances similar to the lipids that coat the virus. Imagine the reaction between water and oil. Water won’t be able to penetrate oil, but another oil can. In the same theory, the soap molecules can help break down the lipids of the virus more efficiently, effectively dissolving the bonds that hold the virus together. Combine it with water and you’ll have the virus broken down from your hands and flushed down the drain.


According to the safety guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wash often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.


CDC

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Drinking water helps—sort of

Since COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, many people believe that staying hydrated and keeping your throat moist will prevent the virus from entering the body. When asked if drinking tons of water helps protect you from the virus, Dr. Gonzalez says, “It is a supportive measure; it is not protective whatsoever, but helps maintaining one’s baseline health,” he explains. This is because our immune system are our biggest ally when it comes to fighting off and even recovering from the virus. “[We treat COVID-19] symptomatically. That’s how most viral diseases are treated. They usually resolve by themselves once the body mounts sufficient defense.”



That’s why immunity-building and health-strengthening practices like eating healthy, drinking vitamin C, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep and rest are some of our best defense amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.



This very issue of immunity is what leads us to the third issue.


Older people may be more susceptible to COVID-19—but it’s not just them

According to data from John Hopkins Medicine, the average age of those who contract COVID-19 are mid to late 50s. And this has led people to believe that older people may be more susceptible to the virus. Dr. Gonzalez confirms, that “Currently, old people are most at risk, or so current epidemiologic studies say, because they have weaker immune systems. Hence why it seems most severe cases right now are from the older age group. You can’t mount a good defense if you don’t have a good immune system to begin with.”



But while this is true, it’s not just older people who are more at risk for COVID-19. He adds, “Another possible at risk group for COVID would be the immunocompromised: HIV patients, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and people who have serious chronic medical conditions.”


But this also doesn’t mean that kids are safe because they should have stronger immunity. Last month, Japan Times reported that a preschooler in Saitama, Japan was confirmed to have the virus. So suspending classes in the meantime across Metro Manila will greatly help in containing the virus—as long as students, of course choose to stay home and not go out to expose themselves to further danger.


Currently, “social distancing” or generally staying away from crowds and crowded places is one of the prescriptions of the Department of Health to help contain COVID-19.