The Most Wonderful Time Of the Year, for Germs, Too

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

They're lying in wait, ready to pounce and eager for your first mistake.

Norovirus. Parainfluenza. Respiratory syncytial virus. The flu.

Grab a contaminated doorknob. Kiss your sniffling boyfriend. Drink from your sick child's cup.

Bang, they've got you.

For many of us this crazed holiday week, it's already too late: Our stomachs, lungs, throats and sinuses tell the tales of respiratory or gastrointestinal misadventure.

For the rest: Wash your hands!

And stay out of sneezing range.

If you don't know, the average sneeze, or cough, has a range of about three feet, according to the Fairfax County Health Department.

As residents of the Washington region rush through the holiday season, crowding planes, cars, malls and the Metro, they are accompanied by microbes that feast on the dynamics of the season.

Experts say hugging, kissing, shaking hands, eating, drinking, shopping, stressing and crowding all abet the annual onset of ailments, which this year seem to be grouped into the coughing thing and the stomach thing.

The coughing thing can have multiple sources. "There is a cluster of cold viruses," said Ulder J. Tillman, Montgomery County's chief of public health services. "It's not just one. It's several."

There's something called parainfluenza, said Shmuel Shoham, an infectious-diseases expert at Washington Hospital Center. Known as human parainfluenza viruses, or HPIVs, there are actually four of them, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nos. 1 and 2 cause the dry, barking laryngotracheobronchitis, a.k.a. croup. No. 3 causes pneumonia. No. 4 is less severe. Whew.

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