Are your hands clean? Americans are fastidious about washing their bodies, but there seems to be a complete disconnect when it comes to washing hands.
Your hands come in contact with more germs than other part of the body, so the cheapest and easiest way to avoid getting sick is simply to wash your hands — the more often the better. However, the Soap and Detergent Association reports that only 39 percent of us wash our hands after coughing or sneezing. That is particularly alarming since we are still in the cold and flu season.
I recently reviewed the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found that washing hands with soap and water can reduce diarrheal disease-associated deaths by up to 50 percent and reduce respiratory illness by 16 to 20 percent. Researchers from London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, we could reduce deaths by a million a year. If that doesn’t make you change your ways, I’m not sure what will work.
We all know that modern medicine and effective antibiotics work to reduce illness, right? They do, but preventing illness before it gets a foothold can reduce the amount of antibiotics people use and the cost of those antibiotics. In addition, the frequent use of antibiotics increases the likelihood that antibiotic resistance will develop.
Recent research by Michigan State University showed that only 5 percent of people washed their hands in the right way and for long enough to be effective. What is the right way to wash your hands? First, start by wetting your hands with water, either hot or cold. Add soap. If you are using liquid soap, use an amount about the size of a quarter. Rub your hands together, being careful to make sure you get the backs of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails for a total of 20 seconds. Bacteria are often under fingernails and on your fingers, so wash those areas carefully.
Sing the birthday song twice for perfect timing. Rinse and dry using a paper towel or an air dryer. Avoid reusable towels since damp towels can harbor lots of germs.
So what, specifically, did Michigan State’s research show? The researchers hung out in bathrooms and observed people’s hand-washing habits. They found that most people washed no longer than six seconds, far less than what the CDC recommends. Men washed less often than women and most of us skipped the soap. It’s clear we have lots of room for improvement.
Even health care workers fail in the hand-washing department. The CDC reports that nurses and doctors fail to wash their hands properly 60 percent of the time. This results in 2.4 million infections each year, which cost over $4.5 billion annually in additional care and treatment.
The number of streptococcus, E. coli and pneumonia cases is expected to increase over the next few years because of increasing outpatient care, an aging population, growing populations and an increase in global travel. These microorganisms can easily spread if we aren’t careful in our sanitation practices.
Washing your hands is the single most effective way to stay healthy this winter. Keep the costs of your health care down by washing your hands often and thoroughly. And watch your health care workers to make sure they are doing the same.