Last week, popular news personality Pete Hegseth said on-air that he doesn’t wash his hands. Health officials have since issued statements reminding the public of the dangers of germs and bad hygiene.
Pete Hegseth, co-host of the program Fox and Friends Weekend, might have sent a dangerous message to audiences nationwide last week. In an off-the-cuff moment, Hegseth repeatedly claimed not to have washed his hands in 10 years. “I inoculate myself,” Hegseth said. “Germs are not a real thing. I can’t see them. Therefore, they’re not real. I can’t get sick.”
Since making the statement, Hegseth has claimed that he was joking. His initial remarks recall those made by 14th-century plague doctors who also knew nothing of the existence of germs, and remind us why we need to stay clean.
How Bacteria Thrive in the Human Body
“Bacteria rapidly reproduce,” said Dr. Steven Novella, M.D., Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. “A generation time may be as short as 15 minutes. It doesn’t take long before there are millions or even billions of bacteria in an active infection. During an infection, those bacteria are mutating.” As bacteria mutate, sometimes they find a mutation that resists antibiotics. This new strain of the bacteria is able to multiply more quickly and more effectively. Antibiotic resistance provides a perfect example of why patients must complete a full course of antibiotics.
According to Dr. Novella, a full course of antibiotics lasts long enough to wipe out all the bacteria in your system. If you only take medicine until you feel better, the bacteria that remain are also the strongest and most resilient to medicine. Stopping your treatment gives the strong bacteria the opportunity to multiply and build up even more antibiotic resistance.
Contributing Myths about the Immune System
Less than a year ago, Hegseth was favored by President Donald Trump to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would put him in charge of the health of over 20 million veterans. Last week, in an interview with USA Today, Hegseth decried too much sanitation in the world today. “We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell in their pockets and they sanitize 19,000 times a day, as if that’s going to save their life,” Hegseth said.
One popular myth that aligns with Hegseth’s views is that antibiotics weaken the immune system. “This is not true,” Dr. Novella said. “They do not have any effect on the immune system. The immune system, in most cases, still has to fight off the infection.” Dr. Novella said that antibiotics just don’t let “the body get overwhelmed by the infection before the immune system has a chance to do its job.”
And washing your hands? “Hand washing is the single most effective behavior to prevent getting an infection, such as the cold, flu, or more serious infections like bacterial infections,” Dr. Novella said. “Scrubbing seems to be the key component. You can’t just put the soap on your hands and rinse it off. It’s the scrubbing that does most of the work.” Dr. Novella also emphasized washing your hands after shaking hands or otherwise coming in contact with someone who may be infected.
Dr. Steven Novella contributed to this article. Dr. Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University. An expert in neuroscience, Dr. Novella focuses his practice on neuromuscular disorders.