The season of sniffing, coughing and sneezing is upon us, and what more motivation do we need to be diligent about washing our hands?
Hand washing is one of the most important things people can do to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses, whether you're at home preparing food or out at the mall, says Jennifer Caudle, director of the family medicine section in the division of General Internal Medicine at Sinai Hospital. "It is the holiday season and people are out and about eating and shopping, and they are touching lots of things, lots of times."
Why is hand washing so important?
The impact [of the spread of germs] is huge: Twenty-two million school days are missed by children due to sickness such as the common cold and other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention].
Hand washing is the front line of defense against the spread of bacteria and viruses. And we aren't just trying to protect ourselves, we are trying to protect anyone whose immune system isn't as strong as ours, including the elderly or babies.
How often should we wash our hands?
You should wash your hands before preparing food or cooking, after using the bathroom or restroom, after changing the baby's diaper, and after playing with pets. Health care workers, in particular, should wash their hands a lot of times - I cannot tell you how many times a day I wash my hands as a physician.
You should also wash your hands any time you are going to touch your mouth or nose, such as when you are going to eat or brush your teeth. Touching your eyes, nose or mouth is how the germs get from your hands into your body.
Is there a "right" way to wash your hands?
What we should keep in mind when washing our hands - plain, old, antibacterial soap from the drugstore is really, really great - is that the length of time you wash matters. The Centers for Disease Control recommends 15 to 20 seconds at least.
When washing with soap and water, make sure you rub the crevices, fingernails, backs of hands. Then reach for a towel that is disposable so that it has not been used by someone else. The CDC also suggests that you use the same towel to turn off the faucet and open the door as you leave the room, so you are not touching infectious surfaces. And when you use the hand dryers in restrooms, use something other than your hands to turn on the dryer.
What about hand sanitizers?
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are good, too. But not all hand sanitizers are equal. Make sure you get an alcohol-based rub that has at least 60 percent alcohol in it - the CDC recommends this.
You should also look on the bottle to find out how much you need to put on your hands. Once you put it on, keep rubbing until it dries on its own.
Will hand sanitizers cause bacteria to become resistant to cleansers?
At the current time, the CDC does recommend washing with these rubs and soaps. This [keeping your hands clean] really is the first line of defense against illness.
How can you prevent the combination of wintery air and frequent hand washings from causing your hands to become chapped?
I try to use moisturizing antibacterial soaps and hand rubs. And some studies do imply that the hand rubs are less drying. Excessively dry hands can become irritated and susceptible to infection as a result of micro-tears in the skin, which allow bacteria in. So using a soap or hand rub that are less drying can be important, especially in the winter.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Another thing that I think is really interesting is that viruses and bacteria can live on inanimate objects for hours after we touch them. Sometimes people think that germs can't live on surfaces, but just because a person has moved on doesn't mean that the germs haven't lingered.
Holly Selby is a former editor for The Baltimore Sun.