Living Well: Why washing your hands is so important

Lauren Glendenning/Brought to you by Memorial Regional Health
Washing your hands with soap and water removes nasty germs from hands, preventing the spread of disease and infection.
Getty Images

Washing your hands is the best way to stop the spread of germs, but you have to wash them properly in order to be effective. 

“People who are sick can easily spread germs everywhere they go. Germs get into your body through the nose, mouth, eyes and breaks in the skin,” said Steve Hilley, RN and Emergency Preparedness/Infection Preventionist at Memorial Regional Health. 

Not washing your hands or improperly/inadequately washing your hands can be detrimental depending on the germ. 

“Some organisms are more serious than others, and some people can not afford to catch the most mild of germs depending on their immune system,” Hilley said, adding that winter months tend to be more important for hand-washing because we spend more time indoors where germs are spread more easily. “Hand-washing offers great rewards in terms of preventing illness. Adopting this habit can play a major role in protecting your health.”

Are you washing your hands effectively?

Washing your hands is easy, and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Proper hand-washing:

  • Reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 23 to 40 percent.
  • Reduces diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58 percent.
  • Reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16 to 21 percent.
  • Reduces absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in schoolchildren by 29 to 57 percent.

How to wash your hands

  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. 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.

Source: CDC

When to wash your hands

Always wash your hands before:

  • Preparing food or eating
  • Treating wounds or caring for a sick person
  • Inserting or removing contact lenses

Always wash your hands after:

  •  Preparing food
  • Using the toilet, changing a diaper or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • Touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
  • Blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • Treating wounds or caring for a sick person
  • Handling garbage
  • Handling pet food or pet treats

What’s on our hands?

Our hands can be carriers of some pretty gross stuff — especially after we’ve used the bathroom. Feces from people or animals carry germs like salmonella, E. coli and norovirus, which can cause diarrhea and spread respiratory infections like adenovirus and hand-foot-and-mouth disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These kinds of germs can get onto hands after people use the toilet or change a diaper, but also in less obvious ways, like after handling raw meats that have invisible amounts of animal poop on them,” according to the CDC. “A single gram of human feces — which is about the weight of a paper clip — can contain one trillion germs.”

Here are some of the ways that washing your hands can prevent the spread of disease and infection, according to the CDC:

  • People frequently touch their eyes, nose and mouth without even realizing it. Germs can get into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth and make us sick.
  • Germs from unwashed hands can get into foods and drinks while people prepare or consume them. Germs can multiply in some types of foods or drinks, under certain conditions, and make people sick.
  • Germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to other objects, like handrails, table tops or toys, and then transferred to another person’s hands.
  • Removing germs through hand-washing therefore helps prevent diarrhea and respiratory infections and may even help prevent skin and eye infections.

How to wash your hands 

Washing your hands with soap and water removes nasty germs from hands, thus helps prevent the spread of disease and infections. 

Most people do not wash their hands correctly. Hilley said it’s essential to get your hands wet first before applying soap. 

“Make sure the water is a comfortable temperature — not too hot and not too cold. Having the proper temperature will allow you to keep your hands under the water for a longer period of time and not be rushed,” he said. 

Research shows that you should scrub your hands for 15 to 30 seconds to remove the most germs from your hands, with 20 seconds being the standard recommended duration (see factbox). Allow for enough time to sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice, according to the CDC. When hand-washing is not available, hand sanitizers are a great alternative, Hilley said. Look for a hand sanitizer with at least 62 percent alcohol level and use plenty of it, making sure you get in between fingers and under nails, he added. 

“If your hands are visibly dirty, you should wash your hands with soap and water,” Hilley said.

As for drying your hands after washing them, towel use after hand hygiene is the most effective way, Hilley said. Studies show that hand towel use can reduce the bacteria on your hands by 73 percent, while some hand dryers have minimal cleaning and can in fact spread germs through the air. Standard dryers can blow microorganisms up to 1 foot while jet dryers can blow them up to 6.5 feet.

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