Do handshakes spread disease?

And if they do, would you give them up?

Topics: Infection Control, Quality, Performance Improvement, Infectious Diseases

February 20, 2013

Handshakes—used for everything from hello and goodbye to sealing a deal—may be making us ill, and a "small but adamant group of people" is advocating for the gesture's retirement.

According to the Boston Globe, the handshake's role in the spread of pathogens remains unclear, even after 30 years of study. "As researchers, it’s the million-dollar question," says Allison Aiello, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health (UMSPH).

For some, the skepticism is enough to prompt action. During the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus, Northeastern University asked attendees at its graduation ceremonies to avoid shaking hands.

In addition, advocates against handshakes, using pins that read "No offense. It just makes sense," the Globe reports.

However, the Globe notes that handshakes may be too socially important to give up.

Studies have shown that the quality of a handshake—from the firmness of our grip to the dryness of our palm—is influential in how others view us. "To not shake hands, in this light, is to opt out of harmony—to set yourself apart, and cause others to wonder whether you’re a misanthrope, a weirdo, or just plain rude," the Globe's Leon Neyfakh writes.

"It’s a question of risk-benefit, when it comes down to it," says Arnold Monto, an epidemiologist at UMSPH. "Are you going to risk offending your colleagues, or are you going to risk getting influenza?" (Neyfakh, Boston Globe, 2/17).

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