Handshakes have reportedly been around since the birth of civilization and were originally a way to prove that you had no weapons in your hand when you met someone new.

We now know that our hands do indeed harbor tiny weapons in the form of germs that are invisible to the naked eye.

When someone with the flu sneezes or coughs without covering their mouth and nose, the virus is sprayed out in tiny airborne droplets that settle on surfaces, or may travel three to five feet before hitting the ground.

The flu virus can survive on a phone headset or a computer keyboard for up to eight hours. Contaminated hands can spread the flu virus during a handshake. While a face-to-face conversation could result in infection, so too, could touching a contaminated door knob or telephone handset and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth without first washing your hands.

In the face of the H1N1 influenza A (H1N1 flu) pandemic and the upcoming flu season, ditching the handshake for a smart salute or an elbow nudge is not a bad idea. Even "La bise," the much loved cheek-to-cheek peck with which the French say hello or goodbye, may have to go, at least for now, for fear of spreading H1N1 flu.

If touching can't be avoided, an elbow nudge is safer than a fist-bump, which is probably safer than a handshake, which in turn is better than a hug or, at worst - a kiss.

There are going to be instances in which a handshake cannot be avoided without creating a scene or embarrassing the person offering a hand.

Make sure you wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill any germs on your hands as soon as possible after the handshake and before touching your eyes, nose, mouth or another unsuspecting person.

Hand washing is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Despite its proven health benefits, many people don't practice it as often as they should.

Good hand-washing techniques include washing your hands with soap and clean warm running water for 20 seconds (as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice) or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Alcohol-based hand rubs significantly reduce the number of germs on the skin and are fast acting.

Throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands through contact with people or other contaminated surfaces. If you don't wash your hands frequently enough, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, antimicrobial wipes are just as effective as soap and water in cleaning your hands but aren't as good as alcohol-based sanitizers. It is important to note that some hand sanitizers do not contain alcohol and are not effective. The CDC recommends choosing products that contain at least 60 percent alcohol. If your hands are visibly dirty, however, wash with soap and water, if available, rather than a sanitizer.

So for this upcoming flu season, remember - saluting is good, "elbow bumps" and waving are perfectly acceptable, and so is just saying, "hi."

Page last updated Thu October 15th, 2009 at 08:10