Clean your hands: A simple way to prevent infection
It’s a simple habit — one that requires minimal training and no special equipment. Yet it’s one of the best ways to avoid becoming ill with an infectious disease, such as a cold, the flu or infectious diarrhea. This simple habit is cleaning your hands (practicing hand hygiene), and it calls only for soap and warm water or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (cleansers that don’t require water). Do you know the benefits of good hand hygiene and when and how to clean your hands properly?
The dangers of poor hand hygiene
Despite the proven health benefits of good hand hygiene, many people just don’t practice this habit as often as they should. You can probably confirm this by simply observing how many people leave public restrooms without washing their hands.
The American Society of Microbiology finds that up to one-third of people passing through major airports in the United States don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also estimates that about one in three people don’t wash their hands after using the restroom.
But the problem goes beyond the restroom. Throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands from a variety of sources — direct contact with people, contaminated surfaces, foods, even animals and animal waste. If you don’t clean your hands frequently enough, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. And you can spread these germs to others by touching them or by touching surfaces that they also touch, such as doorknobs.
Infectious diseases commonly spread through hand-to-hand contact include the common cold, influenza and several gastrointestinal disorders, such as infectious diarrhea. While most people will get over a cold, influenza is much more serious. Some people with influenza, particularly older adults and people with chronic medical problems, can develop pneumonia. The combination of influenza and pneumonia, in fact, is the seventh leading cause of death among Americans.
Inadequate hand hygiene also contributes to food-related illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli infection. According to the CDC, as many as 76 million Americans contract a food-borne illness each year. Of these, about 5,000 die as a result of their illness. Others experience the annoying symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Proper hand-cleaning techniques
Good hand hygiene techniques include washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Proper hand washing
The CDC and the American Society for Microbiology offer these instructions for proper hand washing:
- Wet your hands with warm, running water and apply liquid or clean bar soap. Lather well.
- Rub your hands vigorously together for at least 10 to 15 seconds.
- Scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
- Rinse well.
- Dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel.
- If you’re in a public restroom, leave the water running when you’re finished rinsing. After your hands are dry, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
Antibacterial soaps have become increasingly popular in recent years. These soaps may offer greater protection than regular soaps if you have an open cut or sore on your hand that could become infected or if your immune system is impaired. But, in general, regular soap is fine. The combination of scrubbing your hands with soap — antibacterial or not — and rinsing them with water loosens and removes bacteria from your hands.
Proper use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers — which don’t require use of water — are an excellent alternative to hand washing, particularly when soap and water aren’t available. They’re actually more effective than hand washing in killing bacteria and viruses that cause disease. Commercially prepared hand sanitizers contain ingredients that help prevent skin dryness. In fact, use of these products can result in less skin dryness and irritation than hand washing.
Not all hand sanitizers are created equal, however. Some “waterless” hand sanitizers don’t contain alcohol. Use only the alcohol-based products.
To use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer:
- Apply it to the palm of your hand. Read the label for dosing instructions.
- Rub your hands together, covering all surfaces of your hands, until they’re dry.
- If your hands are visibly dirty, however, wash with soap and water rather than a sanitizer.
When should you clean your hands?
Although it’s impossible to keep your bare hands germ-free, times exist when it’s critical to clean your hands to limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.
Always clean your hands:
- Before eating
- After using the bathroom
- After changing a diaper — wash the diaper-wearer’s hands, too
- Before and after preparing food, especially before and immediately after handling raw meat, poultry or fish
- After touching animals or animal waste
- After blowing your nose
- After coughing or sneezing into your hands
- Before and after treating wounds or cuts
- Before and after touching a sick or injured person
- After handling garbage
- Before inserting or removing contact lenses
Kids need clean hands, too.
Proper and frequent hand washing by children can prevent many childhood infections. To get kids into the habit, teach by example. Wash your hands with your children and supervise their hand washing. Place hand washing reminders at children’s eye level, such as a chart by the bathroom sink for children to mark every time they wash their hands.
Older children and adolescents also can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Younger children can use them, too — with an adult’s help. Just make sure the sanitizer has completely dried before the child touches anything. This will avoid ingestion of alcohol from hand-to-mouth contact. Store the container safely away after use.
Good hand hygiene is especially important for children who attend daycare. Children in daycare are at greater risk for gastrointestinal diseases, which can easily be spread to family members and others in the community.
To protect your child’s health, be sure your daycare provider promotes sound hygiene, including frequent hand washing or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Ask whether the children are required to clean their hands several times a day — not just before meals. And make sure the sink is low enough for children to use, or that it has a stool underneath so that children can reach it. Note, too, whether diapering areas are cleaned after each use and whether eating and diapering areas are well separated.
Good hand hygiene doesn’t take much time or effort. But it offers great rewards in terms of preventing illness. Resolve today to adopt this simple habit as a way to help protect your health.
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