National Hand Washing Week
Hand Washing Hygiene
December brings winter weather, arctic winds, holiday melodies in the air and the sound of coughing and sneezing all around us. People may think colds are contracted from the germs people breathe, but the truth is, people literally catch cold viruses in their hands. Once the viruses are on hands, people infect themselves.
Cold viruses are four times more likely to be on the hands of someone with a cold than in their sneezes. Environmental surfaces such as counters, cups and doorknobs allow viruses to live for hours. When we shake hands with infected people or touch things they have touched, we may pick up their viruses. By touching our nose or eyes, we put the virus into our system where it can lead to infection. Kissing or sipping from someone else's cup is actually less likely to spread a cold than simply touching our noses since it takes 8,000 times fewer viruses to infect our noses than our mouths.
Hand washing has been shown to significantly reduce the chance of spreading cold viruses. Studies in elementary schools have demonstrated a 50 percent reduction in absenteeism with the introduction of a comprehensive hand-washing program.
Intestinal diseases from simple diarrhea to hepatitis A are reduced when food preparers wash their hands. The Centers for Disease Control recommend hand-washing before, during and after food preparation; before eating and after using the bathroom; after handling animals or their waste; when hands are visibly dirty and frequently when caring for a sick person in the home.
To be effective, hands should be rubbed together vigorously with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds. Brief rubbing or simply rinsing under running water is not enough. Contaminants are stuck in oils that adhere to the skin. Agitation by rubbing loosens the dead skin cells and soap keeps the contaminants and germs suspended in the water so they rinse off. Soap does not kill the bacteria. In fact, germicidal soaps must remain in contact with the skin for several minutes to kill germs. Anti-bacterial soaps may give a false sense of security that could lead to less-vigorous washing.
Medical personnel are exposed to bacteria and viruses that are more dangerous than those most non-medical people experience. Unfortunately, studies have demonstrated inconsistent adherence to hand-washing practice by doctors in hospital settings. Complaints about too few sinks or dry and cracked skin have contributed to inconsistent washing of hands.
New rules have been introduced to emphasize the importance of clean hands and new hand sanitizers are being used to help with the effort. These alcohol-based sanitizers have been shown to kill pathologic bacteria in seconds without the drying effect of soap. They can be kept close at hand to eliminate walking to a sink. With their introduction, non-medical people also may benefit. Research has shown significant reductions in illness in schools where hand sanitizers have been used because they can be kept in the classroom so sinks are not needed. Visible dirt still should be removed by washing, but hand sanitizers can eliminate germs that cause colds and other illnesses.
All germs are not bad. Some scientists believe that our immune systems learn to distinguish bad germs from good germs by being exposed to dirt and germs early in life. Studies are ongoing, but many doctors think that excessively clean environments may not be a good idea. It may not be necessary to maintain a completely antiseptic environment for children, but teaching children to wash their hands before eating and after using the bathroom is important.
Although shaking hands is a standard custom in Western societies, people are rethinking its place in social and business interactions because it spreads viruses. The CDC is suggesting people cough or sneeze into the crux of the elbow to keep viruses off of hands. People can reduce their own risk of illness by learning not to touch the eyes or noses until after washing hands thoroughly or using one of the new skin sanitizers. Extra care will continue to be the rule for medical personnel and food-handlers.
Keep yourself and your family healthy this winter and through the year. Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness, but clean hands certainly lead to good health.