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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 it.

"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 include:

  • After you cough or sneeze into them.
  • Before, during and after you prepare food.
  • 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 A.

"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."

More information

For more on the value of hand washing, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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