Keep Germs at Arm's Length
Want to avoid getting sick this winter?
One of the greatest infection-fighting tools is right in your bathroom
or kitchen, and chances are good you aren't taking advantage of
"Plain soap, plain water, 15 seconds
of friction and you have a marvelous intervention to break the cycle
of infection," says Judy Daly, secretary of the American Society
for Microbiology and a professor of pathology at the University
of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Hand washing is considered "the single
most important means of preventing the spread of infection" by the
U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Think of all the
times during the day you bring your hand to your eyes, nose and
mouth, and then consider that each time that happens you could be
delivering an external bacteria or virus into your body.
National Hand Washing Awareness Week
begins Dec. 7, and public health officials hope to use the event
to draw more attention to the simple act that can keep you well.
Hand washing can prevent the spread
of everything from the common cold or influenza up to more serious
diseases such as hepatitis and severe acute respiratory syndrome
(SARS), experts say. Infectious diseases are the leading cause of
death and disease worldwide, and the third leading cause of death
in the United States. An estimated 36,000 people die from flu-related
complications each year in the United States, for instance.
But a recent American Society for
Microbiology study found that almost a third of people who use public
restrooms while passing through international airports fail to wash
their hands. The August 2003 study observed 7,541 people in Chicago,
Dallas, Miami, New York City, San Francisco and Toronto.
There's no set number of times you
should wash your hands each day, Daly says. It largely depends on
what you're doing.
You should wash your hands whenever
you think you've exposed them to bacteria or viruses. Some examples
- After you cough or sneeze into
- Before, during and after you prepare
- Before you eat.
- After you use the bathroom.
- After changing a diaper.
- After handling money.
You also should wash your hands more
frequently when you're living with someone who is sick.
Experts say hand washing should be
a simple exercise. Plain old soap, warm water and a little elbow
grease are enough to do the job.
The most important part of hand washing
is rubbing your soapy hands together, says Beth Glynn, a public
health educator for the health department in Tacoma-Pierce County,
in Washington state.
"That friction is the part that lifts
the bacteria and germs and dirt off of your hands," she says.
Experts recommend 15 to 20 seconds
of rubbing when hand washing. A good way to judge the time is to
recite the alphabet or sing "Happy Birthday to You." Be extra thorough
if you wear rings because germs can build up around and in the rings.
Afterwards, you need to dry your
hands thoroughly with a clean towel. Try to avoid re-using towels,
especially in a public setting, as the germs knocked off by others'
hand washing might linger on the cloth.
Glynn says thorough hand drying also
prevents the spread of disease by keeping your hands from becoming
chapped. "When hands are chapped and cracked, they will have nooks
and crannies that make it easier for germs to hold on," she says.
Plain soap is enough to dislodge
germs, say experts, who recommend against using antimicrobial soaps.
"Because the mechanical action is what gets germs off your hands
best, it's not necessary to have that extra antimicrobial agent
in the soap," Glynn says.
Further, the widespread use of antimicrobial
soap could end up creating tougher germs.
"If you overuse or misuse antibiotics
or products that have an antimicrobial agent, there's the possibility
that you're killing off the weak germs but leaving the strong germs
that then breed and become more resistant to antibiotics or antimicrobial
agents," Glynn says.
Experts also frown on the new trend
of using waterless, soapless hand sanitizing gel.
"We tell people it's not something
that replaces hand washing," Glynn says. "It's a good product to
use in a location where you have absolutely no access to hand washing."
The problem is that while the alcohol-based
gels will kill off bacteria, they do nothing to remove dirt from
your hands and likely won't kill off tough viruses such as hepatitis
"It's very likely that it won't kill
some of these viruses that are likely to be spread through hand-to-mouth
contact," Glynn says.
Experts learned one interesting fact
from the airport hand-washing study. While a third of the people
passing through airports didn't wash overall, folks passing through
the airport in Toronto -- where a frightening outbreak of SARS occurred
last winter -- washed at a 95 percent rate or higher.
"People, it seemed, had been reminded
that SARS could be alleviated by washing your hands," Daly says.
The bottom line: People need to know
they are surrounded by potential disease that can be fended off
with a procedure that costs pennies.
"Germs are everywhere," Glynn says.
"It's not something to be paranoid about, but good hand washing
is the best way to prevent colds and flu and the most common ailments
we come across."
For more on the value of hand washing,
visit the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reference Source 101