Word of the Day: Fomite

The word of the day is fo·mite \ˈfō-ˌmīt\ n, pl fo·mites \-ˌmīts; ˈfäm-ə-ˌtēz, ˈfōm-\, which, according to Merriam-Webster’s online medical dictionary, is

an inanimate object (as a dish, toy, book, doorknob, or clothing) that may be contaminated with infectious organisms and serve in their transmission <the much maligned toilet seat is a remarkably ineffective fomite—M. F. Rein> <what are the most common fomites for rotavirus in day-care settings—Pediatric Report’s Child Health Newsletter>

My trusty MW Collegiate provides some interesting etymology: “back-formation fr. fomites, fr. NL [that’s New Latin], pl. of fomit-, fomes, fr. L., kindling wood; akin to L fovēre to heat — more at FOMENT.”

Foment, of course, means to promote the growth or development of; fomites, then, would be the substrate upon which this growth or development would occur. The link between foment and fomite is spurious, however. Rebellions are fomented; bacteria are cultured.

Or is that link spurious? Saturday night sure felt like my body was rebelling… I’m not entirely sure what fomite was responsible for the transmission of my most recent illness:

  • Was it the lovely cotton handkerchiefs with which we lovingly wiped the lad’s little nose-y during his weeklong hiatus from school?
  • Was it the vomitus with which he so liberally graced me as I stayed home to tend him at the midpoint of the aforementioned week?
  • Could it have been the dirty dirty hands that he lays so liberally on my face?
  • The bathwater that he splashes on me? The towels we dry him with? The cute little clothes he wears?

I’m just glad that the forces of my immune system were able to quell the disruption with only minimal loss of sleep and comfort.

Whatever may have been the transmission  method, it was successful, despite the hygiene regimen so strictly enforced by the lad’s loving mother. She always does her best to disrupt the fomites’ plans. She launders, she washes hands, she enforces personal hygiene.

When she’s not around, do these standards slip? Is that what happened?

It’s possible. But Dad doesn’t like dirty hands any more than Mom, and while he doesn’t launder as frequently, he does take what he considers reasonable precautions against disease transmission. Personally, my money’s on the bath of hot, greasy vomit that Dad enjoyed while tending the lad last week. Not something a reasonable hygiene regimen could avoid. Give those beasties a few days to ripen:

  • lag phase (high metabolic activity but no cell division)
  • log phase (rapid–logarithmic–bacterial cell division)
  • stationary phase (bacterial growth rate equals bacterial death rate)
  • death phase (nutrient sources exhausted, bacteria population collapses)

There you have the arc of a neat little rebellion. And it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for those meddling immune responses.

Had I been of a more scientific bent (and had a few petri dishes and a supply of nutrient agar lying around), I could have tried this nifty little experiment to see what kind of cultures I could have grown…