Family Health: Protect against illness by washing hands, surfaces

Hand washing seems like such a simple activity. Did you know that hand washing is the No. 1 defense against illness? Illness is caused by bacteria, viruses and other microbes – aka “bugs” – and hand washing gets rid of them. How should hands be washed?

Hand washing should happen in five steps. (Don’t worry, they are easy.)

  1. Wet hands with warm water.
  2. Apply soap. Antibacterial soap is no better than regular soap at killing the bugs that make you sick. And antibacterial soap might lead to more resistant bacteria, so use regular soap to wash at home.
  3. Lather well, rubbing all hand surfaces for at least 20 seconds. That is the same amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” or the alphabet. If it helps, hum along. This is the most important step because friction – the rubbing part – kills bugs that are transmitted on your hands.
  4. Rinse well and dry using a clean towel, a paper towel or an air dryer.
  5. If possible, use a dry towel to turn off the faucet.

One other way to clean hands and prevent illness is using antibacterial hand wash. This is just as effective at killing most bugs. Just remember that the most important step is still friction. Rub the hand wash in until it is dry.

Now that we have the basics down, when should hands be washed?

  • Before preparing or eating food.
  • Before putting in contact lenses.
  • After preparing or eating food.
  • After blowing your nose or touching your face.
  • After using the bathroom.
  • After touching pets or their equipment (leashes, dog food dishes, toys).
  • After touching a sick person.

What are some other things you can do to prevent illness?

  • Avoid touching your face. Bugs that cause illness get into your body through mucous membranes. Mucous membranes include your eyes, nose and mouth, and are favorite points of entry for these bugs.
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, but don’t use your hand. A better strategy is to use your sleeve to catch the cough or sneeze. Then, when you touch the next thing (like a door knob) you won’t spread the germs because you didn’t get them on your hand.
  • If someone in your house is sick, think about wiping down surfaces that you touch often, such as doorknobs and the television remote control. This will prevent the illness from getting passed around to everyone in the house.

And just like that, you have helped to prevent sickness. Be healthy and be well!

Rebecca Conroy is a nurse practitioner with Community Physician Group in Stevensville, a part of Community Medical Center.