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Clean hands save lives

Published in For the Health of It Author: Ellen Simonson, RN, MPH, CIC

Your mother was right. Probably about many things — but particularly about this one. Washing your hands is important.

Even in our modern age, with more knowledge and tools at our disposal. Handwashing is a particularly effective way to help prevent the spread of germs and infections. It is estimated that handwashing can prevent about 30 percent of diarrhea-related sicknesses and about 20 percent of respiratory infections (colds, flu, etc.).

Handwashing also plays an important part in the public health problem of antibiotic resistance. If handwashing prevents germs and sickness from spreading, then on a larger scale — fewer people getting sick should lessen the need for antibiotics to treat those infections.

To properly wash your hands, experts recommend the following steps:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap. Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the substances in soap lift soil and microbes from skin, and people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Germs are present on all surfaces of the hand, often in particularly high concentration under the nails, so the entire hand should be scrubbed.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. Because hands could become recontaminated if rinsed in a basin of standing water that has been through previous use, clean running water should be used.
  • Dry your hands. Studies suggest that using a clean towel or disposable paper towel is best.

Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of microbes on them when hands are visibly soiled or dirty. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Washing hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in most situations.