Technological Advancements in Killing Germs

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: AN INTRODUCTION TO INFECTIOUS DISEASES

By Barry C. Fox, M.D., University of Wisconsin

With the passage of time and the advancement of technology, our understanding of germs has also evolved. Every day, new and creative means are invented for dealing with germs much more effectively than before. So, what are these technological advancements? And, what is their efficacy?

A team of scientists researching in a lab.
Every day, new and creative tools are invented to tackle germs much more effectively than before. (Image: aslysun/Shutterstock)

Let There Be UV Light

Can ultraviolet technology help kill germs? UV lights or wands utilize short-wavelength UV radiation harmful to microorganisms. One can be purchased for about $40 that claims to kill 99 percent of bacteria. To use the wand effectively, the surfaces need to be smooth so germs cannot hide in cracks.

UV light used for disinfection next to a face mask.
UV lights or wands utilize short-wavelength UV radiation that is harmful to microorganisms. (Image: Nor Gal/Shutterstock)

UV is effective in destroying germs by disrupting their DNA, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions. UV disinfection actually has a viable role in hospital environments for TB and Clostridium Difficile spore disinfection. Also, it has been increasingly utilized in sterilizing water.

The Environmental Protection Agency has accepted UV disinfection as an effective method for drinking water processing plants to contain the spread of parasites like Cryptosporidium, Giardia, or even for virus inactivation.

This is a transcript from the video series An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hand Sanitizers Are the Next Best Thing

Hand sanitizers contain 60 to 70 percent alcohol and are able to kill most germs instantly by denaturing, or twisting out of shape, proteins in bacteria and most viruses. Since they are convenient and they act quickly—within 15 seconds—they are widely used in hospitals and marketed in most stores.

Note that alcohol is not selective. It kills both pathogenic bacteria as well as commensal, friendly bacterial flora. It is good to know, though, that research has demonstrated that alcohol hand sanitizers do not necessarily pose any risk by eliminating good microorganisms that are naturally present on the skin. 

This is because the body quickly replenishes the good microbes on the person’s hands. However, alcohol also strips the skin of outer layers of oil, negatively affecting the barrier function of the skin.

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What Kind of Soap to Use?

There are several kinds of antibacterial soaps. The most common antibacterial soaps sold in stores contain a product called triclosan, while the most common antibacterial soaps used in hospitals contain the ingredients povidone-iodine or chlorhexidine gluconate.

Hands being washed with soap and water.
Most common antibacterial soaps sold in stores contain a product called triclosan. (Image: Maridav/Shutterstock)

Triclosan has been used for years in the healthcare setting as a disinfectant. However, some animal research has shown that it might disrupt the endocrine or hormone system. Triclosan is used in many antibacterial soaps and even in some kinds of toothpaste.

Because of these concerns, studies are underway to determine whether this ingredient should actually be removed from products. In 2014, Minnesota became the first state to legalize a measure banning triclosan-containing products.

So, besides soaps and gels, what other disinfectants are available? Well, good, old-fashioned bleach is still known to be 99 percent effective against pathogens (thanks to its active ingredient hypochlorous acid). It attacks proteins in bacteria, causing them to clump together and die. This reaction is similar to the way bacteria respond to high temperatures.

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Everyday Devices

Germs on technological devices and elsewhere are a whole new ballgame as far as killing germs and protecting the user in the process. It is obviously difficult to clean a laptop or tablet with bleach or alcohol, but new products are emerging like washable screen protectors and disposable covers that enclose the entire device. 

These may be particularly useful in healthcare environments, where there is a huge potential for pathogens to easily transmit from workers to tablets or computers. As for tablets in public places like airport terminals, people who use them are advised to wash their hands thoroughly afterward. Washing hands is the one thing that can be done to significantly reduce the chances of getting sick.

What to Touch, and What Not to?

With regard to touchscreens, one research project found thousands of bacteria on the Amtrak touchscreen at the train station. Since most germs were nonpathogenic skin staphylococci, people can feel some partial reassurance. But strategies should be figured out for touchscreens, including grocery stores, ATMs, ticket kiosks, and airport check-ins.

It is important to know that if there are some potential pathogens like E. Coli, the immune systems should be strong enough to prevent major illness. It is also important for people to realize that every pole touched on the train, bus, or subway has the potential of spreading the cold or flu virus and other bacteria. Viruses are more likely to cause illness than bacteria since the mucous membranes of the nose and the eyes are more easily breached by viruses.

Common Questions about Technological Advancements in Killing Germs

Q: How does UV light work against germs?

UV light uses advanced technology to destroy germs by disrupting their DNA, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions.

Q: Why are hand sanitizers not risky to use even though they remove the friendly bacterial flora?

Even though hand sanitizers do eliminate good microorganisms that are naturally present on the skin this does not necessarily pose any risk because the body quickly replenishes the good microbes on the person’s hands.

Q: Are viruses or bacteria more likely to cause illness?

Viruses are more likely to cause illness than bacteria since the mucous membranes of the nose and the eyes are more easily breached by viruses.

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