Defend Your Health with Hand-Washing

As the weather gets colder, more and more people are coming down with some type of “bug.” With so many germs circulating around us, protecting ourselves from these unpleasant illnesses is a top priority. Thankfully, the most effective defense is one of the simplest. Hand-washing with soap and water is proven to greatly reduce the spread of germs.

We all know that washing our hands is a healthy habit. In a study conducted by Michigan State University, 97% of those surveyed agree that hand-washing is important to keep yourself healthy. Participants were observed in a public bathroom to evaluate their hand washing habits. 95% of those observed did not wash their hands long enough to kill germs. What’s worse, a significant percentage did not wash their hands at all. To help protect ourselves from preventable illness this winter season, we need to know when to wash our hands, and how to do it right.

Certain activities increase your chances of contact with germs and viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) places using the bathroom as an activity requiring hand-washing. E-coli, norovirus and hand-foot-mouth disease are primarily found in feces. These germs can be spread from your dirty hands to other surfaces if you do not wash your hands well. Doorknobs, guide rails, and tabletops can all harbor unwanted germs that are easily picked up by casual contact. Touching your eyes, nose, and mouth without properly washing your hands can get you sick. The bathroom is not the only place where germs can be spread. Handling and preparing food, especially raw meat and vegetables, without washing your hands can spread Salmonella and Listeria, both of which can make you violently ill. Washing your hands with soap and water before starting, during preparation, and after completion can help reduce the chances of spreading them. Large numbers of people could become sick if a restaurant employee does not wash his or her hands effectively before returning to work. Hand-washing is also encouraged if you are already sick, or if you are caring for someone who is. Taking the time to wash your hands after coughing or blowing your nose can save others from sharing your germs. Finally, hand-washing is always recommended if your hands are visibly dirty, or if you are in contact with garbage or other unsanitary material.

With hand-washing, timing is everything. To perform effective hand-washing, the CDC recommends using the following steps:

  1. Wet your hands with clean water. Once your hands are wet, turn off the tap and apply soap.

  2. Lather the soap on your hands by rubbing them together vigorously.

  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Singing “Happy Birthday” twice is an easy way of timing yourself to ensure you are not cutting your hand-washing short.

  4. Rinse your hands with clean water and dry them with a cloth. A hand dryer is also an option.

Step two is the time when the germs are killed and washed away. Failure to scrub your hands with soap for the recommended 20 seconds makes hand-washing ineffective. Any type of soap can be used. According to the CDC, hand soap does not have to be antibacterial to be effective. Since the combination of soap and time are key, only using water to wash your hands will not kill germs. In cases where soap and water are not available, using an alcohol based hand sanitizer will kill most of the germs on your hands. For best results, apply hand sanitizer by rubbing it into your hands and allowing it to dry for at least 30 seconds. Hand sanitizer should be avoided if your hands are visibly soiled. In the fight against germs, however, any effective method, be it soap and water or hand sanitizer, is preferred to not washing your hands at all.

Protecting yourself from spreading germs and viruses starts with the simple act of hand-washing. By washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water when exposure to germs is highest, the spread of germs can be significantly decreased. To keep yourself healthy this winter, practice regular and through hand-washing. All you need is soap and water.

Stacia Donaldson is a Legal Nurse Consultant, skilled in Clinical Research, Nursing Education, Medical-Surgical, Patient Education, and Patient Safety. She is a Registered Nurse and holds a Bachelor of Science in Registered Nursing from Mount Saint Mary College. She can be reached at: