Hand Washing

How’s Your Hand Washing Technique? 

Maybe it’s gotten a little lax over the years? Wiggling your fingers under the water for a few seconds really doesn’t count. Washing our hands, and encouraging our kids and teens to do it, is the most effective way to stop germs from getting to us and also preventing the spread throughout our offices, daycare centers, schools, and communities. 

The Centers for Disease Control recommend these 5 steps – every time: 

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. You might sing “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice. Evidence suggests that washing hands for about 15-30 seconds removes more germs from hands than washing for shorter periods.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

OK, now your hands are clean and you’re set to go. 

Here are a few more reminders. Wash your hands:

Before eating or preparing food 

After blowing your nose

After changing a baby’s diaper

When you come home from work

After using the bathroom 

This last one may seem basic, but the CDC reports that only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women wash their hands after using a public restroom. Really!  OMG!

Also, when you are in public spaces, just assume your hands are pretty germy. Don’t cough or sneeze into your hands (use your elbow) and don’t rub your eyes or nose with your fingers. This is how germs get into your mucous membranes, where it’s warm and moist and where they can multiply, thrive and cause more infections. Ok, just one more: Obviously, this means you might not want to use your fingernail to get that stubborn piece of kale out from between your teeth.

What does handwashing prevent?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, handwashing can prevent 1 in 3 gastrointestinal and diarrhea-related illnesses, including Salmonella, and 1 in 5 bacterial or viral infections, including the flu. 

This is important because some forms of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections can cause serious complications, especially for young children, the elderly, or those with a weakened immune system. About 1.4 million children under age 5 die every year from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia worldwide.

What about Antibiotic Resistance?

We are all aware of the problem of antibiotic resistance. This occurs when people have taken multiple rounds of antibiotics and future infections with bacteria become resistant to them, making the antibiotic ineffective. Hand washing means fewer illnesses, and thereby lowers the use of antibiotics. 

Soaps and Sanitizer Gels

Studies show that there is no added health benefit for the general population in soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap. So, in 2016 the FDA ruled that products with 19 different added “antibacterial” ingredients could no longer be sold to the public. 

While soap and water are best, hand sanitizer gel is definitely better than nothing. It does kill microbial cells as long as it is 70 percent isopropanol alcohol (rubbing alcohol).  

How Hand Sanitizers Work

The products are mixed with a little water, and the solution penetrates and disrupts a virus’s outer coat. For a bacterium, gels work by disrupting its cell membrane. Hand sanitizers do not work well if your hands are very dirty or greasy, and they do not kill Salmonella. 

In many developing countries simply washing your hands is not so simple. This is the case in Tanzania, where many people rely on rainwater coming from their roofs or a communal tap. In many areas, people do not have fuel to boil their water for drinking or to use to wash safely. In Tanzania, we see many people who have serious infections from contaminated water.

On my last trip to FAME, I traveled to an outlying area with Joyce Ngowi, a nurse-midwife, and educator, who spent a morning teaching traditional birth attendants in a village how to wash their hands. 

In a country where we can simply turn on a tap and have gallons of clean water literally at our fingertips, it’s almost impossible to believe that over 780 million people around the world do not have access to an improved water source where they can use clean water and avoid disease. The CDC calls this area of need WASH – for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. I worked on this in Honduras through the Olancho Water Purification Initiative. We provided filtration equipment, training for the staff and built 25 systems for communities around the area of Juticalpa 

It’s incredible to see communities transformed by having access to clean, safe water.

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