Washing your hands: 1st line of defense in battling COVID-19
Just in case you haven’t heard, washing your hands is a good idea. Like — a really good idea.
The U.S. is at a critical point in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. If we can test more, isolate cases and slow the spread, we may be able to stay closer to South Korea’s curve than Italy’s.
However, because we got such a late start on testing and have limited supplies, the physical distancing part of the solution is now more crucial than ever.
And part of that it is being incredibly vigilant about hand washing and avoiding cross contamination.
The best data out thus far on the COVID-19 virus is that it is primarily being spread through cross contamination, said Lauren Bryan, infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
For example, cross contamination works like this: someone coughed on their hand or wiped their nose, then touched a surface, and you touched that same surface. Then, you touched your mouth, eyes or nose.
Researchers are now seeing evidence the virus is largely being spread by people who have mild symptoms and have no idea they are sick.
“The explosion of COVID-19 cases in China was largely driven by individuals with mild, limited or no symptoms who went undetected,” said Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School in a statement about a study he co-authored and published March 16. “Depending on their contagiousness and numbers, undetected cases can expose a far greater portion of the population to virus than would otherwise occur. … These stealth transmissions will continue to present a major challenge to the containment of this outbreak going forward.”
It is also important to remember this is a new virus. It is fast, it is sneaky, and scientists still don’t know everything — it appears to primarily be spread through droplets, as from a sneeze or cough. However, they just don’t have enough data to know things like how long it can live on surfaces, what kind of surfaces it survives best on or how long it may linger in the air.
“The best answer is: We don’t know, so wash your hands,” said Bryan.
Scrub, scrub, scrub
Yes, hand washing is a pretty straightforward concept, but we can go a little more in depth.
First, wash hands for 20 seconds and look beyond “Happy Birthday” as the primary count keeper.
It is important to do the full 20 seconds, and most of us are probably learning we don’t typically wash our hands for that long.
If you have little ones, the ABC song, all the way to “Next time, won’t you sing with me,” makes for a pretty solid 20 seconds.
Or, Google “20 second songs for hand washing” and you will find no shortage of recommendations.
The point is, the longer the better. If you aren’t in the mood to sing and don’t know if it has been 20 seconds, wash for a few more seconds.
How you wash is also important, explained Bryan.
“Don’t forget the nail beds,” she said. “Nail beds are full of cracks and crevices.” And for those ladies with false nails, Bryan said, those can trap extra grime — including viruses and festering mold.
“Remember, it is not just palm to palm,” Bryan added.
Get under the nails, your cuticles, and don’t forget the webbing between your fingers — including the thumbs. And don’t forget the backs of your hands.
So what about soap?
When dealing with a virus as opposed to bacteria, the primary purpose of soap is as cleaner while water wash is to move stuff off your hands and down the drain. Regular old soap does this as good as anything, Bryan said.
“I don’t care if it’s got glitter or smells pretty or is in the shape of a sea shell — it is the action of being an emollient — and getting stuff off the surface of your skin and down the drain,” she said.
Antibacterial soap deals with bacteria. COVID-19 is not bacteria. It is a virus. On top of that, in 2016, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of soaps with 19 antibacterial chemicals, saying the industry had failed to prove they were safe to use over the long term or more effective than using ordinary soap and water.
Those chemicals were found in about 40% of soaps. More studies are looking at how some of those chemicals might be harming the environment, leading to bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics and even cause cancer.
The two most commonly used chemicals include Triclosan, mostly used in liquid soap, and triclocarban, mostly used in bar soaps.
Even if antibacterial soaps don’t cause more damage than good, there has been no conclusive evidence to date to suggest household antibacterial soaps produce better results than non-antibacterial soaps.
“Antibacterial soap does not kill the coronavirus,” Bryan reiterated. For this, it’s about “you using friction to scrub it off your hands and wash it down the drain.”
“We use a lot of hand sanitizer in the hospital,” Bryan said.
A lot of that is because nurses and doctors require hand hygiene hundreds of times a day — a soap and water wash that often would result in cracked and bleeding hands.
It is important to check the ingredients of your hand sanitizer. Bryan recommends something with at least 70% alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control “recommends washing hands with soap and water whenever possible because hand washing reduces the amounts of all types of germs and chemicals on hands. But if soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”
Making hand sanitizer at home or pouring booze all over your hands isn’t recommended, Bryan said, because it may not reach that 60% to 70% threshold.
Now is the time to be a germaphobe, and be conscious of every surface you touch — whether that is the handle at the gas pump, a doorknob or a grocery cart handle.
When it comes to wearing gloves, it must be remembered that coronavirus is not transmitted through your skin, Bryan said. And you can still transmit the virus with a gloved hand, just like a hand without the glove — especially when you touch your face. If wearing a glove helps you to remember not to touch your face or bite your nails, she said, that is always a good reminder.
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