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Is handwashing really a do-it-yourself vaccine againsts germs?

December 03, 2019
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Remember when you were a kid and your mother asked you if you had washed your hands before having dinner or after going to the bathroom?

There was a good reason for asking.

Your mom probably wanted you to stay healthy and others, too.

“Proper hand hygiene is the single most important means of preventing sickness and the spread of infection,” said Kristin M. Smith, an infection control practitioner at Baystate Medical Center.

PERSONAL HYGIENE BEGINS WITH THE HANDS

December 1-7 is National Handwashing Awareness Week. It's a time to remember that personal hygiene begins and ends with our hands and to relearn the basics about hand hygiene.

The American Medical Association offers several principles of hand awareness – wash your hands when they are dirty and before eating, do not cough or sneeze into your hands, and don’t put your fingers in your eyes, nose or mouth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), handwashing can prevent 1 in 3 diarrhea-related illnesses and 1 in 5 infections, including the flu.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of hand washing to reduce the spread of germs, especially during flu season,” said Dr. Megan Gallagher of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center.

WHEN TO WASH

The CDC offers the following key times to wash your hands:

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage.

Sadly, the CDC also reports that only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women washed their hands after using a public restroom. And fewer know how to wash their hands correctly.

FOLLOW THE PROPER TECHNIQUE

The five steps to proper handwashing are:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

While washing your hands with soap and water is considered the best way to eliminate germs, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Check the label to be sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Remember, however, that sanitizers do not get rid of all types of germs, harmful chemicals, and grease.

December is a key time to remind everyone about handwashing as illnesses such as colds and flu begin to increase. This is especially important during the holidays when your immune system is weakened by stress and lack of sleep.