Hand washing : the simplest good health trick in the book

The other day my nephew came home from school with a red nose, and sneezing every 10 minutes or so. My sister was at her wits end; she knew that once a cold was in the house, it would likely affect everyone else in the family. We’ve all heard cases of kids catching infections from one another, especially at play school. However do you know that one very simple habit can cut down the risk of infections ? A surprising but true statistic is that globally people wash their hands only about 19 % of the time after using the toilet or after changing a child’s diaper ! Closer home, the numbers suggest that only 31% of men and 65 % of women washed their hands after using a public restroom ! Researchers in London have estimated that if everyone routinely washed their hands, and washed their hands well, a million deaths can be prevented every year ! Hand washing can reduce the risk of respiratory infections by 16 %, and diarrheal disease related deaths by upto 50 %.

 

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Obviously, if washing hands has such a critical role to play in our personal healthcare, it’s important that we spread the word, and that we wash our hands right … believe it or not, there is a science to washing hands! On this occasion of National Hand Wash week, let’s be sure we get the basics right:

 

  1. Where possible, wash your hands with soap using clean, running water from a tap. 2nd preference, if clean running water is not available, is to use soap and whatever form of available water. In the absence of water, use an alcohol based hand sanitizer with at least 60 % alcohol to wash your hands

 

  1. It doesn’t matter whether you use warm or cold water to wash your hands, warm water dries up your skin and may therefore cause some skin irritation

 

  1. Lather up well with soap. Apply soap and scrub your palms, the back of your hands, your fingers, in between the fingers and under your nails

 

  1. Using soap to wash your hands is more effective than using only water. The idea is that when we apply soap, we tend to lather our hands, and scrub a lot more. The surfactants in soap lift microbes and dirt from the skin and from under one’s fingernails, while the scrubbing further helps reduce germs

 

  1. Let the scrubbing action last for at least 20 seconds. You can actually count slowly to 40 to time the 20 seconds (or sing the chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” twice)

 

  1. Rinse your hands under running water. Be careful to rinse all the soap off. Soap left on your skin will feel slimy and cause skin irritation !

 

  1. Dry your hands. There are different schools of thoughts on whether air drying or using a paper towel is better than using a cloth towel for drying one’s hands. I personally prefer the air drying method, as I feel that is the most sanitary. If you prefer you could use a paper towel. Avoid cloth towels (especially ones that are not single use) in public places

What about anti-bacterial soaps ? Studies have shown that in day to day life, there is no added health benefit for customers by using soaps containing anti-bacterial ingredients

 

The logical next question is when should one wash one’s hands ? Well you should do so :

  1. Before every meal, whether at home or in school or at camp
  2. Before, during and after preparing a meal, especially when dealing with seafood, eggs or meats
  3. Every time you sneeze or cough into your hands (when not using a handkerchief)
  4. Every time you / your kids pick their nose, or stuff their fingers in their ears, or scratch their heads, or put their fingers in their mouth
  5. Before and after treating any wounds or scrapes or cuts
  6. After every contact with animals, whether farm animals or pets
  7. After using the washroom
  8. After touching garbage
  9. Every time you handle any chemicals and cleaning products, or after Chemistry lab
  10. After playing in the sand pit, or in the park or anywhere outdoors, or after a trip to the gym

Other very simple steps that help in reducing spread of infections include

  • Shower before entering and after leaving the swimming pool
  • Disinfect contact lenses properly
  • Clip nails, and keep nails short
  • Do not leave food in the open where flies or other insects could sit on the food

Just follow these simple steps (and teach your kids to follow these steps) and you and your kids will be able to steer clear of many of the infections that are around us all of the time. Happy hand washing and a healthy life !

 

References that I have consulted :

http://globalhandwashing.org/about-handwashing/faqs/

http://globalhandwashing.org/about-handwashing/why-handwashing/health/

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/hand/handwashing.html

 

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