Health Matters: Handwashing helps prevent spread of infection


November 5, 2019

Handwashing is something we all do, but probably not nearly enough or correctly. With cold and flu season quickly approaching, we could all use some helpful reminders on how to properly wash our hands to prevent the spread of illness and stay healthy.

A brief history of handwashing
People have been washing their hands for centuries, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Ignaz Semmelweis, a European doctor, identified a connection between hand hygiene and infection prevention. Then, it wasn’t until nearly a century later that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) endorsed hand hygiene as a way to prevent the spread of infection and introduced the first nationally endorsed hand hygiene guidelines. Both Semmelweis and the mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, advocated for hand hygiene practices in hospitals and on the battlefield, but the practices that they recommended were not widely adopted. While Semmelweis and Nightingale were ahead of their time, today, handwashing is seen as a simple and effective way to prevent the spread of infection and illness.

Why is handwashing so important?
According to the CDC, studies have shown that handwashing can prevent one in three diarrhea-related sicknesses and one in five respiratory infections like the cold or flu. We touch our face a lot–our nose, mouth and eyes–often without even realizing it. When we touch our face, the germs on our hands can enter our bodies. One study conducted by the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health found that on average, people touched their face over 15 times per hour. It’s not hard to fathom how germs can spread fast when we don’t wash our hands.

Handwashing done right
Believe it or not, there is a right way to wash your hands. According to the World Health Organization, you should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Interestingly enough, the temperature of the water doesn’t really matter. If you don’t want to count to 20 every time you wash your hands, consider singing “Happy Birthday” or the ABCs (in your head, of course). Singing a well-known tune is also a great way to encourage kids to properly wash their hands. I always remind people to pay close attention to the area around their fingernails, the space between their fingers, the area around the wrist, and last but not least, their thumbs! We often forget those areas, especially when we’re in a hurry.

What about hand sanitizer?
Hand sanitizer is a great hand hygiene product. As with handwashing, there is a right and a wrong way for application. Plus, there are times where hand sanitizer products aren’t an appropriate alternative to good old soap and water. If you do use hand sanitizer, be sure to put enough product on your hands to cover all surfaces, rubbing your hands together until they are dry. This usually takes 20 seconds. If your hands are visibly dirty, be sure to use soap and water, not hand sanitizer. Also wash your hands if you have come into contact with bodily fluids. Some bacteria, like norovirus, is not killed by the alcohol in hand sanitizer. If you’re around anyone who is sick, be sure to wash your hands to prevent the spread of illness.

Handwashing at the right time to prevent the spread of infection
In the medical field, there are very specific times health care workers are required to wash their hands. For the general public, we recommend that people wash their hands after using the restroom, before eating and after they touch what we call “high touch” items. A few high touch items include our cellphones, money and shopping carts. A study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine along with Queen Mary University of London found that 82 percent of phones showed some type of bacterial contamination. Sixteen percent had E. coli, a bacteria that can potentially cause illness and that is fecal in origin. These are not-so-pleasant reminders that hand hygiene is important in our everyday lives.

Hand hygiene is really about the basics. Practicing good hygiene, getting your flu shot, using proper cough etiquette and staying home if you’re sick are simple, important things that we can all do this cold, cough and flu season.

Jamie Seymour, RN is the infection preventionist at St. Peter’s Health in Helena.