It’s virus season, this time more worrisome than it is most years. But there’s a lot we can do, easily, to remain uninfected so as to avoid the common cold, the flu, and, now, the newly emerged and sometimes fatal Chinese coronavirus that has allowed television newscasters to enter a whole new field of panicked misinformation.

First, here’s some very important but seldom understood background: Viruses (viri to those of us who studied Latin) are not bacteria. They are not like bacteria at all. Antibiotics are of no use in fighting viruses, and people who insist on antibiotics when they have a viral disease (as well as the pliant physicians who give in and prescribe antibiotics) are doing nothing except helping to breed the growing population of superbugs – bacteria that have come to be resistant to antibiotics.

Most disinfectants are of little help in fighting viruses, and they, too, often make bacteria stronger. That’s part of the reason the Food and Drug Administration banned some popular antibacterial products in 2017.

To avoid viral infection we are advised to be vaccinated when vaccines are available, and to wash our hands frequently, with soap. Hand washing with soap is recommended not because it kills viruses but because it sends them down the drain. Soap is recommended not because it kills viruses but because we wash our hands longer and more thoroughly when we use soap, to make sure we rinse off all the soap.

Those things are good. So is having lots of fresh fruits and vegetables – which must also be washed before they’re consumed; we have no idea who has been sneezing near them – and staying home when we’re sick, to avoid spreading the contagion. There’s nothing heroic about soldiering in to work and infecting coworkers. As an old program director of mine, Jack Merker, was fond of saying, “If you think you’re indispensable, stick your finger in a glass of water and see how big a hole it leaves.” (He was later brutally murdered, though probably not for his aphorisms.)

There is something else that we can and should do, even if – especially if – we’re already sick or someone else in the house is sick. We should humidify the dickens out of our houses and other buildings where we spend time.

We know it works for the flu. “By raising indoor relative humidity levels to 43 percent or above, investigators reported that they were able to quickly render 86 percent of airborne virus particles powerless,” reports WebMD.

We do not yet know whether humidity inactivates the currently feared coronavirus strain, but there’s a good chance it does. And in any case, at this point you’re orders of magnitude more likely to suffer from and perhaps even die of the flu than you are of the headline-grabbing Chinese bug. As of mid-January, 87,000 people in the U.S. had been hospitalized and 4,800 of them had died due to the flu this season, which isn’t even in full swing yet. If you can greatly reduce the chance of getting or spreading the flu by keeping a humidifier cooking along, it would be foolish not to do it, don’t you think?

There are a lot of ways of humidifying a building. I keep in my bedroom, and run from first frost through mid-May, a wick-and-fan type humidifier that has a built-in hygrometer that tells me how humid the air is in that room. (Many popular digital wall thermometers also have a humidity readout, and I have one of those in the living room.) It is surprising: some days the air is naturally humid enough that the humidifier distributes only a pint or two of water to the air, while in the cold days of deep winter, the times when touching grounded metal can make a spark because of static electricity easily generated in dry air, the same machine evaporates five gallons of water or more.

I also occasionally employ what is called a vaporizer, which I think of as a humidifier that uses heat to produce steam, rather than evaporation via a wick. These are cheap – about $20 at the drug store – and are often put in sickrooms to make cold and flu sufferers more comfortable. They also, it turns out, make it less likely that the kind person delivering that soothing soup will become sick. (I always put a little bit of peppermint oil in the cup next to the steam outlet, because it makes the house minty fresh, seems to clear the sinuses, and renders the house unattractive to mice – it disrupts their sense of smell.)

Things that help, but that are probably insufficient by themselves to keep indoor humidity above 43 percent, include misting the house plants frequently and leaving the bathroom door open when showering. (I really do wish there were a way of routing the warm, moist air from the clothes dryer into the house instead of venting it to the outside, where both moisture and heat are wasted.)

There is one irritating operational problem with steam vaporizers: The water here contains minerals that build up because while the water evaporates the minerals don’t. If you have a wick vaporizer it’s no big deal, because you replace the wick every month or so. The steam vaporizers, though, can get clogged and rendered inefficient by these minerals. I fix mine by taking it apart and scraping away the mineral buildup. If you do this, for heaven’s sake unplug the thing and let it cool off first, or you will be electrocuted, which is an effective but extreme way of making sure you don’t get infected. (By next year, I swear, I will have installed the reverse-osmosis water purifier that had been sitting in its box here for most of a decade. Then I’ll use that water in the vaporizer and the problem will be solved.)

It may seem that I’m making light of the potential coronavirus epidemic. I’m not. I’m convinced that sooner or later some bug, with or without our help, will wipe us out or come close to it. Whether it is the current virus-of-concern is unknown. It might be. It probably isn’t. But either way, the advice is the same: humidifying your house, your store, your place of work, will reduce the likelihood that you’ll get sick and maybe die of this bug.

And keeping the place nice and humid is good for wooden furniture, musical instruments, your nose, your hair, and fingers tired of getting zapped by static whenever you turn on the faucet or open the refrigerator.

So it’s really something we all ought to do, for ourselves and for those around us.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at

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