Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Your toothbrush is your friend

I was watching TV the other night right before bed. I usually do a bunch of stretching exercises then, and I often turn on a cable news station to accompany the action (although, come to think of it, that may not be the most relaxing thing to have on in the background while trying to unwind).

While I was changing channels to try to find the best station, my attention was grabbed by an ad for this product, called "Violight," a little gizmo that purports to sterilize your family's toothbrushes through the wonders of UV light.

The commercial (actually, I think it must have been an infomercial--it was long!) featured the usual smiling hosts and satisfied customers, as well as "scientific" proof of how many germs ordinarily live on one's toothbrush, lying in wait like muggers ready to pounce on the unsuspecting users of old, unsterilized, non-Violighted toothbrushes--that is, most of us. Quelle horreur!

We were told just how many bacteria dwell on our innocuous-seeming toothbrushes--nine million? sixteen billion? I forget; the mind boggles. The customers on the infomercial looked properly stunned at the news, and who wouldn't be? They were grateful to have been told about the Violight, and will be sure to use one in the future to safeguard the health of their families.

I'd read about this toothbrush contamination business before. But it always seemed rather bogus to me. Not that I doubt there are plenty of bacteria--and viruses, let's not forget the viruses--on our toothbrushes. But ordinarily, these things come from---our mouths!

Yes, I know it's hard to accept, but our bodies are breeding grounds for bacteria, most of them innocuous, some even beneficial (that's why taking antibiotics can sometimes cause people to come up with yeast infections, or intestinal troubles: the good beasties have been killed off by the drugs, as well as the bad).

There's a book on the subject of bacteria and people that made the deepest of impressions on me back when I first read it in 1969, when it came out: Life on Man by Theodor Rosebury. Despite its so very un-PC title, I never forgot its message (caveat for the squeamish on the following passage):

The figures that [Rosebury] grapples with are quite mind-boggling. For example, he counted 80 distinguishable species living in the mouth alone and estimated that the total number of bacteria excreted each day by an adult to ranges from 100 billion to 100 trillion...From this figure it can be estimated that the microbial density on a square centimeter of human bowel is around 10 billion organisms (1010/cm2) [==> 1.5 x1013 or yielding a total of 15 trillion microbes, based on 2 m2 surface/person].

Microbes inhabit every surface of a healthy adult human that is exposed to the outside, such as the skin, or that is accessible from the outside -- the alimentary canal, from mouth to anus, plus eyes, ears, and the airways.

Rosebury estimates that 50 million individual bacteria live on the average square centimeter (5x107/cm2) of human skin [5x107/cm2 x 20,000 cm2/person = 1011 bacteria], describing the skin surface of our bodies as akin to a "teeming population of people going Christmas shopping."

I'm not sure why Christmas shopping would come to mind, but you get the point: Houston, we've got a lot of bacteria here. And then there are the parasites--but at this point, I'll draw a veil over further discussion of this delicate issue. Sometimes it's best not to look too closely, believe me (for example, I just did a Google search for images of the hair follicle mite that hitches a ride on us all, and concluded that I could not in all good conscience assault my readers with those pictures).

But one thing it is good to know is that most baceria do not harm us, and some actually help us. Not only that, but there's even evidence that exposure to bacteria in early life toughens the system in various ways, such as the reduction in the incidence of asthma.

It seems that people--and even children--were not meant to be free of all bacteria. It's true that advances in hygiene have saved lives, particularly from such contaminated-water-borne diseases as cholera and typhoid. But we have over-corrected when we are afraid of our own toothbrushes; the bacteria that live there, in general, originate within our mouths. As long as we don't share toothbrushes with each other (and even the grungiest of us usually knows better than to do that), I think we're quite safe.

After all, the Violight people have an interest in drumming up fear of contaminated toothbrushes: to make money for themselves. And they're not the only ones; recent decades have seen the rise of two other similarly over-the-top anti-bacterial products: soap and sponges.

Ah, remember those days when a sponge was just a sponge and soap was just soap and a kiss was still a kiss? The fundamental things don't seem to apply as time has gone by: it's actually become somewhat difficult to find non-antibacterial soap or sponges.

There is no need to disinfect ourselves as though we were in an operating theater. But that seems to be the aim of companies who make these products and advertise them, who would dearly love to see us all turned into a bunch of obsessive-compulsives, the perfect consumers.

In pursuit of this goal, the Violight people have mastered the art of the out-of-context quote. Their website features the following, which sounds nicely convincing:

Even after being rinsed visibly clean, toothbrushes can remain contaminated with potentially pathogenic organisms.”
— The Centers for Disease Control, January 2002 report

If one Googles the sentence and finds the original report, it's true that Violight has quoted it correctly. However, let's take a look at the rest of the story [emphasis mine]:

To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is unaware of any adverse health effects directly related to toothbrush use, although people with bleeding disorders and those severely immuno-depressed may suffer trauma from tooth brushing and may need to seek alternate means of oral hygiene. The mouth is home to millions of microorganisms (germs). In removing plaque and other soft debris from the teeth, toothbrushes become contaminated with bacteria, blood, saliva, oral debris, and toothpaste. Because of this contamination, a common recommendation is to rinse one’s toothbrush thoroughly with tap water following brushing. Limited research has suggested that even after being rinsed visibly clean, toothbrushes can remain contaminated with potentially pathogenic organisms. In response to this, various means of cleaning, disinfecting or sterilizing toothbrushes between uses have been developed. To date, however, no published research data documents that brushing with a contaminated toothbrush has led to recontamination of a user’s mouth, oral infections, or other adverse health effects.

So, as long as you keep your toothbrush to yourself, don't worry, be happy: brush, rinse, and go forth into the world and meet the day, secure in the knowledge that your toothbrush is not out to get you.


At 3:15 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

The number one disease that I can think of that came about as a result of cleanliness was, I believe, polio, and that's an interesting story in itself.

The problem here, really, is selling a product. People don't like dirt, they don't want to smell, they don't like germs: so, how far do you want to go with this? The answer is, if you are selling stuff, as far as you can.

Remember Dorothy Provine and her feminine hygiene spray commercials .....

At 3:27 PM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes I splash hydrogen peroxide on my toothbrush if I feel like it might have been compromised somehow.

At 3:41 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Will, I don't even want to think of how a toothbrush might be compromised.

Steve, take a look at this, appropos of your last sentence.

At 3:58 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger trenchmeister said...

I remember reading a report some time back where someone did a test to determine how much toilet water was released into the air as an aerosol each time the toilet was flushed. They concluded that a significant amount actually became airborne so they suggested to not leave your toothbrush on the sink near the toilet as there was about a three foot radius that was affected. That'll get you thinking...

At 4:06 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I've noticed, Neo, that people use "parasite" and "symbiote" interchangeably. TO me, parasite means something using resources but not giving any benefit back. A symbiote, uses the resources of the host but also gives some kind of benefit.

I agree, Junk Science sucks. It preys upon the ignorance of many people, who don't tend to have much knowledge of logic, science, engineering, philosophy, or the dialectic. Engineers know better than this.

Bookworm had an post about germs too. Link

At 4:43 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Maybe Bookworm ought to change her name, then...

At 4:55 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Joan said...

Kevin beat me to the airborne toilet water issue. In our house, the lid gets closed before flushing. That's what the lids are for, after all.

We keep our toothbrushes in hydrogen peroxide when we're not using them. We change it out once a week. We've noticed less transmission of illness between kids since we started doing this. Of course that's purely anecdotal, but we've had many fewer colds and virii.

One recommendation I've seen that seems to make sense is to sterilize or throw out your old toothbrush if you've had a cold or other illness. It would make sense to me that the sickness germs would stick around on the brush, and there's no point in re-introducing them to your system. Anyway, keeping the brushes in a cup of peroxide is cheap and easy to do, and a quick brush with the peroxide-soaked bristles helps keep the stains off my teeth.

I can't see investing in anything more expensive or high-tech than that.

At 5:16 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Joan: Once you've had a virus (and colds and flu are viruses) you yourself become immune to that particular virus. So you cannot reintroduce the virus to yourself, as far as I know.

Cold viruses mutate and change, and so each strain is different--but they don't mutate while they're sitting on a toothbrush.

At 9:28 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger jlbussey said...

You just had to make me curious enough to go google up those pictures myself, didn't you???

At 9:29 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:30 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:37 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I don't think a lot of people dispute that if you keep your house germ free, that your kids will get less sick. Rather, the danger is of course, the people who don't get sick will eventually meet someone who has been sick, and then the guy who hasn't gotten sick will die from the new sicknesses.

So in a competitive environment, getting sick young is a good thing. And it's not even measles, mumps, or chicken pox the only diseases we protect against when older.

Short term vs long term in a way.

A healthy thing to do is to use mouth wash when flossing. Cause there's some bacteria you don't want to swallow, causes heart problems or whatever.

So you cannot reintroduce the virus to yourself, as far as I know.

You could reintroduce yourself I guess, if your immune system was weak as heck. But usually you beat it off early on, so you don't notice any of the side-effects. I mean, I was a sick child. Had a lot of nose bleeds that wouldn't stop, among other things. Now, since I didn't die, my blood clots faster. I get colds but I am able to live with reduced effects without medication, after one good day of sleep and food. Fevers break in at max 2 days, with a lot of sleep, I've always had that, 2 days of fever then it breaks with a nightmare. Fevers were nasty. One time I had a nose bleed cause of cold water and it didn't stop for a couple of hours. That was a lot of blood from my perspective. Wasn't fun, in the least.

I did notice in school, that people got sick earlier than me. Meaning, they had runny noses in flu season. But I never missed any days as a child because I was sick, that just didn't happen. It's only weird now, because I realized that other children were missing school days because of sicknesses. But for some weird reason, my fevers started on Friday night, and ended Sunday morning. That wasn't a coincidence, cause it kept happening.

And I was out at the bus stop in the morning, when it is fracking cold with wind shear. Sun wasn't even up.

That moisture with the toilet thing... I'm not even sure water molecules in the air can sustain germs. It doesn't seem likely they can breed up there, so it's like, there's not many of them. And so long as the body isn't inundated with stress and lack of food, the immune system should be doing a crackdown on these foreign organisms.

There was always this mind-body connection I've been studying. Where you can influence your body with your mind, sorta of like Pavlovian response cycle. In that sense, if people are scared or worried about germs in the air, they can make themselves sick. Or at least decrease their immuno-defense system. Stress is a big immune system killer. People who are stressed, can't get eat, eat the wrong things, don't feel optimistic, are more susceptible to sickness.

At 4:19 AM, April 06, 2006, Blogger The probligo said...

I do not know how or why, but this flicked into my universe today. If it came from here I apologise but it has some application universally.

In the news just in the past couple days is the discovery that head lice in NZ are getting to be immune to the "traditional" treatments. So, because they don't work some parents have started using pet flea treatments.

How does this happen? Constant re-infection and use of the same treatment that kills 99.5% of all lice. The 0.5% that survive are not affected by the treatment, breed and produce offspring that are immune to the treatment as well.

Google MRSA and see what the persistent use of antibiotics as a "placebo treatment" has created.

At 6:20 AM, April 06, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

Bathing every day, reasonably healthy food, clean clothes, being active, getting fresh air and a bit of sun goes a long, long ways. Being a closet herbalist, I should pontificate but won't, other than to say thoroughly rinsing a toothbrush in hot water and standing it upright in open air goes a long ways, along with flossing and rinsing well after a meal if one can't brush. I guess I should start a blog, Your Mother Says...... if you have your health and some friends, don't worry too much about what you eat - how's that for starters? Next, I will dispense advice on how to avoid spontaneous combustion.

At 9:49 AM, April 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must admit, I am a bit more obsessive than most in keeping my toothbrush clean i.e. rinsing, careful drying, keeping it away from other "dirty" places... but I've never felt the need to actually irradiate it. Isn't a good, careful rinse and stand-drying good enough?

I am one of those who take care in washing my hands, avoiding the public bathroom's door handle/knob, etc. (shirt sleeves or the paper towels help in this regard) because I hate being sick, but I'm also aware that being excessive about that can backfire. Wasn't it said that using antibacterial soap can do more harm than good, since it's only strong enough to kill off the benign stuff and allow the really dangerous microbes to flourish? And that, for it to actually work, you'd have to leave it on your hands (or the dishes, or the surface of whatever you're cleaning) for two minutes or more? I think I'll go look that up and verify...

I hate being sick, but even I remember my biology, and realize that we actually need infections to excercise our immune system. Neo, you're right. We seem to be overcorrecting.

Ymarsakar: Off topic. I promise I'll respond to that earlier Navy/piracy post on your site at some point. I've just been busy in an ugly way, and I'm tossing these postings off in between tasks at work (Whoops! Just admitted that I'm doing this from work ;-) ).

At 11:25 AM, April 06, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

Your Mother Says - you are wise, Elmondo, BUT, you didn't say how often you replace toothbrushes, which suggests you are skimping and may suffer immensely because of it. Uncle Harvey lost his teeth because he kept using the same brush month after month. You don't want to end up like him do you?

At 4:31 PM, April 06, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Don't worry about it El, I responded because you provided some interesting info I hadn't heard before. And new info always gets me writing.

Some people just have better teeth genetics that don't suffer from decay as much. They're the ones with naturally straight teeth and those incisors. Or not.

Eventually they'll come up with an injection that regrows your teeth. And won't that be fun.

At 10:14 PM, April 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Uncle Harvey lost his teeth because he kept using the same brush month after month."

Huh? I thought it was because Aunt Pearl smacked him in the mouth with a rolling pin for coming home late one night, drunk...

That Aunt Pearl... what a hellcat.

Seriously, though, I do need to replace my brush more often. But no, I don't wait all that long between replacements! And my dentist does say my teeth are all right, thank you.

But, I really gotta do something about this spontaneous combustion crap; it's driving my friends crazy. They've taken to pre-emptively throwing water on me, just in case. Any advice, Mother?

At 6:57 AM, April 07, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

Your Mother Says - talk to your father about sexuality, this cold water business suggests your friends know you are preoccupied with thinking about girls too much and not attending to your studies. You don't want to end up being a dishwasher instead of a Dentist, do you?


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