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Sorry, Barflies: Dry January Isn't a Fix For Heavy Drinking

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Briefly cutting back on alcohol can save money, and it might even temporarily improve your sleep or help you lose weight. But as Inside Science reports, Dry January—the increasingly popular practice of giving up booze for the entire first month of the year—might not confer any lasting health benefits if you're planning on hitting the bars again come February.

Researchers say there's just not enough data to gauge whether short-term abstinence pays off in the long run. In fact, studies have indicated that people who are forced to stop drinking for periods of time (such as military recruits) end up overdoing it after they're allowed to imbibe again. And going booze-free affects people differently based on age, gender, genetics, and drinking habits.

That said, volunteer abstinence—with plenty of social support—could prompt positive change. Richard de Visser, a psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, published a study in 2016 in the journal Health Psychology based on follow-up questionnaires answered by Dry January participants. The surveys revealed that many people actually ended up drinking less overall, even after their alcohol hiatus was over.

"Even if participants took part but didn't successfully complete the 31 days, it generally led to a significant decrease across all the measures of alcohol intake," de Visser told BBC News. (Critics of the study pointed out that its participants belonged to a self-selecting group that had successfully scaled down their alcohol consumption.)

Meanwhile, a mini-experiment conducted by New Scientist journalists in 2013 challenged the notion that short-term sobriety doesn't pay off. After ultrasounds and blood tests, 10 staffers gave up booze for five weeks, while four continued drinking as they always had. Tests done after the experiment showed that the abstainer participants' liver fat, a precursor to liver disease, had fallen by an average of 15 percent, and their total cholesterol and blood glucose levels had also dropped. They also lost weight and reported better sleep quality.

Experts said they didn't know how long these physical benefits would last, and cautioned against viewing a month's sobriety as a quick fix. But they did conclude that the results were promising—and that they might be even more pronounced if people reduced their overall booze intake year-round.

[h/t Inside Science]

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The Very Disgusting Reason You Should Always Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them
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It’s sometimes assumed that clothing with a price tag still dangling from the sleeve can skip an initial wash. Someone else may have tried it on, sure, but they didn’t run a marathon in it. Why not just throw it in the closet as soon as you get home?

One big reason: lice. As The Independent reports, Donald Belsito, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told NBC's Today show recently that clothing fresh off store racks can harbor infestations of lice, scabies, or fungus.

You might be familiar with head lice as the dreaded insects that occupy the scalp and give school health monitors cause for concern. Head lice can be transmitted via clothing and other fabrics, and anyone who tried on a shirt or dress before you did can be a carrier. While they only live for one or two days without a blood meal, that’s still enough time to cause problems if something is being tried on frequently.

Scabies is far more insidious. The mites are too small to see, but the allergic reaction they cause by burrowing into your skin to lay eggs will be obvious.

Both scabies and lice can be treated with topical solutions, but it’s better to kill them by washing new clothes in hot water. A good soak can also get rid of formaldehyde, a common chemical used in fabrics to help ward off mold in case stock gets wet in transit. Formaldehyde can cause allergic skin reactions. For all of these reasons, it’s best to hit the washing machine before those new pants ever hit your hanger.

[h/t Independent]

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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