Infection Protection

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December 3, 2013


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This post is available in: Spanish

Hand washing, whether at a sink with soap and water or with the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, can prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

This is a long-standing, proven premise that most people understand.

So why do so many Americans ignore these two practices? Or why do so many improperly wash their hands?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that many Americans – up to a third or more in some studies – don’t  wash their hands before leaving the restroom.

People also forget to wash their hands before preparing meals. They also grab snacks without thinking about washing their hands.

A study released in June by a team from Michigan State University found that just 5 percent of people washed their hands for 15 seconds or longer.

The CDC recommends that you wash your hands vigorously using soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds, or the time it normally takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. On average, however, bathroom users only washed their hands for 6 seconds, the study found.

With the advent and proliferation of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, there is no excuse for not keeping yourself safe from the spread of viruses and bacteria that live for several hours on hard surfaces like cafeteria tables, telephone receivers, computer keyboards and doorknobs.

Cold and flu prevention through hand washing or hand sanitizing can keep you from passing on these common viruses – and picking up viruses on surfaces in your environment.

The CDC also recommends the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol, especially if soap and water are unavailable. There are many brands of hand cleaners, but read the labels carefully to see if they contain sufficient alcohol, the CDC says.

“Hand sanitizers are very common now in hospital settings,” said Barbara Russell, R.N., director of Infection Prevention and Control Services for Baptist Hospital. “But they are also becoming widely-used in the outside world. And that has helped with infection prevention and control. More flu is spread by people coughing in their hands and then shaking hands, or by leaving germs on hard surfaces where someone else can get them on their hands and transfer them to their nose or mouth.”

How common are hand sanitizers becoming?

“A lot of parents are putting them in their kids’ backpacks, because schools are where germs can spread easily,” Ms. Russell said. “They are very convenient for a lot of people. You just don’t always have a sink around to wash your hands with soap and water.”

Just remember, Ms. Russell says, when you do regularly use an alcohol-based sanitizer, the substance builds up on your hands. After several uses, proper hand-washing with soap and water should be done.

“Basically, if there is something visible on your hands, wash with soap and water,” she said. “If you have access to soap and water, always wash your hands properly. But if you don’t, the alcohol in hand cleaners can kill bugs effectively. We encourage people to use them.”

According to the CDC, here’s the right way to wash your hands:

  • Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  • Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well.
  • Be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  • Continue rubbing your hands for at least 15-20 seconds. You can hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. That should take about 20 seconds.
  • Rinse your hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.

  • When should you wash your hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage
  • Follow this advice to protect yourself and others from infection.


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