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When it comes to loving care, there's nothing like a mother's spit

November 12, 1998

When my 6-year-old son left the house for school the other morning, I did something only a mother would do. I spit on my hand, then used my wet, slimy fingers as a comb. Later that day, I caught myself licking my fingers then using them to wipe off the tootsie roll ring around my 3-year-old's mouth.

I firmly believe the military was not the originator of the term "spit shine." Moms began the concept. We spit on everything to clean it.

Mother's spit contains a unique formula. The special enzymes in our saliva conquers all. Even comedian Jeff Foxworthy claims that his mom's spit is better than Formula 409. Foxworthy says, "It even takes the rust off of bumpers."

Think about it. It's true. Without flinching, we use spit to clean our children's faces, wipe our shoes, remove lipstick, smudge eye shadow, turn pages of a book, rub out clothing stains and clean eyeglasses. We even smear saliva on our lips to moisten them to make them more sensuous.

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The saying "Sealed with a kiss" really means "Here is a sample of my saliva. May it keep you looking neat, clean and healthy."

Spit possesses strange healing powers too.

Whether it's Fido licking his paw or a child sucking a cut finger, there is a seemingly universal urge to lick a wound.

Alas, a group of English researchers reports that this instinct actually may help disinfect the wound, as nitrites in saliva react with the skin to make nitric oxide, a chemical that can kill bacteria. Saliva contains immune cells that could help healing by stimulating skin cell growth. In the absence of antiseptics, the time-honored method of licking still is a good way to clean a wound.

Scientists in Great Britain also have developed a tool to test drivers for illegal drugs and alcohol by having suspects lick a "lollipop" swab stick. The saliva detection system is not well-developed in the U.S., but there is an increasing interest in the sucker test.

Your saliva also leaves a DNA fingerprint that not only says who you are, but whether you have a genetic predisposition for certain diseases. This wealth of information contained in saliva makes it a promising alternative to blood as a source of DNA for genetic testing, according to a report in the October issue of Journal of Immunological Methods.

But not all people see the value in saliva.

A state lawmaker in Atlanta proposed a law that she considered finger-licking good. Rep. Dorothy Pelote introduced a law this year that requires the use of sponges to dampen one's digits when separating the plastic bags in the supermarket checkout line. Apparently Pelote was grossed out when the bag boy licked his fingers to separate the plastic bags.

"They need a wet sponge like the bank uses to keep tellers' hands moist while they are handling money," Pelote said. "It's the healthy thing to do. Would you want a plastic bag with someone else's spit?"

But Dr. Paul Blake, director for epidemiology for the Georgia Division of Public Health says the finger-licking poses more of a hazard to the grocery bagger than to the customer. Workers who lick their fingers are more likely to get colds, he said.

Dr. Blake also said "Licking your fingers is like licking a dollar bill or the counter where you're working."

When my grocery bagger asks me "paper or plastic?" he usually has to wait until I "wash" the animal cracker, fruit juice and chocolate candy plastered to my child's face.

And if my bagger licks his fingers, I'll see it as a sign that he cares.

Jo Ellen Barnhart is the working mother of three young boys. She teaches at Frostburg State University and Hagerstown Junior College and consults in public relations and marketing. Write to her in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.

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