12/28/2016 09:09 EST | Updated 12/28/2016 09:10 EST

Keep Your New Year's Eve Party Hygienic

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Friends wearing hats at party

On Saturday night, millions of Canadians from coast to coast to coast will attend a wide variety of parties, concerts, and household gatherings to ring in the New Year. Surrounded by family, friends, and undoubtedly strangers, everyone will be waiting for the clock to strike twelve. At that moment, they will rejoice collectively and spread their good cheer with others.

That's not all they will share. During the lead up and after the start of 2017, people also will be shedding millions of germs. Most of these microbes will be harmless, making up a part of our individual microbial cloud. There may be a few unwanted species in the mix, such as fecal coliforms. But even these generally won't be troublesome to our health. The most concerning species in question are those known to be popular around this time of year: cold and flu viruses.

In Canada, the December marks the arrival of several infectious respiratory viruses, such as the dreaded influenza virus. Depending on what part of the country you call home, other names such as rhinovirus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, coronavirus, and human metapneumovirus are circulating amongst the population. Once these get into the respiratory tract, they can lead to as much as a week's worth of sniffles, coughs, achiness, and irritability. Worse, they can weaken the immune system allowing other infections to gain access to the body and cause more serious troubles such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

The most common times for infection acquisition happen to be when people group together, such as mass gatherings. Depending on the type of infection, the number of cases can rise as much as 10% over what would normally be expected. Part of the reason or this spike is simply the sheer density of people. However, there is another factor associated with group-based spread.

People have a tendency to touch items intended for the mouth such as cups and glasses as well as finger foods such as chips, cheese, and those nuts that everyone scours through trying to find the best mix. As soon as the item is touched, microbes are left behind, a phenomenon known as deposition. For an infection such as influenza, research has shown the risk for picking up a virus from surfaces, also called fomites, increases. Depending on the strength of a person's immunity, infection could happen with as little as a few hundred viruses.

In a fully catered environment, this type of risk is relatively low. But most gatherings during New Year's Eve happen to be self-serve when it comes to food and drink. This essentially means unless you know exactly who has touched these items before you, the microbial composition of that carrot stick or cracker is a mystery. This can lead to a rather unsavoury conundrum. Do you forego the goodies or hope to goodness everyone is free of infection?

There may be a better approach to lowering the risk associated with deposition. Simply offer a means to kill the viruses before they can get onto surfaces. This entails making sure people's hands are clean prior to touching any food or drink item. At first glance, this may seem like a rather arduous and futile effort. But that isn't the case. You can reduce that risk with a few conspicuously placed bottles of hand sanitizer containing between 62 and 70 percent alcohol.

Ten years ago, this suggestion would have been considered ridiculous. Back then, hand sanitizers were meant for the hospital, not the home. But the attitude has slowly been changing thanks to research on the use of hand hygiene in the home. Over the years since, several studies have shown the gel inside those clear, rectangular bottles can reduce the chances of fomite-based infection spread.

Thanks in part to these efforts, the use of hand sanitizers not only has become commonplace outside of the healthcare facility, but also recommended in many areas where gatherings occur, such as workplaces, schools, malls, and sports facilities. More importantly, the gels have become accepted in Canada as a sign of potential infection spread; if you see a bottle, there's probably a risk. This in turn helps to convince people to think about the role of hands in infection spread and to take those 15 seconds needed to reduce it.

If you are hosting a New Year's Eve party, whether there be four or forty attending, the best option to ensure people stay safe is to keep the hand sanitizer in plain sight, preferably within a metre's distance of potential fomites. You might even want to decorate the bottles to make them more attractive to the eye.

On the other hand, if you are attending an event, especially if it is a mass gathering, be sure to keep hand sanitizer with you. The protection from fomites is one thing, however, there's another reason for having your own personal bottle. Considering the number of different surfaces one may touch in a few hours, including other people at midnight, the potential for infection is essentially unknown. By keeping your own hands safe, you can practically eliminate the risk. That way you can be sure New Year's Day is just as enjoyable as the night before.

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