Keeping hands free of germs is one of the simplest and most effective ways to keep from catching the flu, a cold or some other infectious disease, experts say.
“Disease transmission is hand-to-hand combat, at least for infectious diseases,” said Dr. Thomas Weida, professor of family and community medicine at Penn State University’s Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. “By washing your hands regularly, you decrease the spread of disease.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists hand-washing as one of the top recommended ways to avoid catching the flu.
Hand-washing also can keep you from becoming infected with bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli, said Marcia Patrick, director of infection prevention and control for MultiCare, a health system in Tacoma, Wash. That’s critical because the CDC says an estimated 76 million Americans are stricken with a food-borne illness each year, and 5,000 die from their illness.
“All the different things we touch in the regular course of our day can contain germs: grocery cart handles, elevator buttons, keyboards, telephones,” added Patrick, who’s also a spokeswoman for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
Those germs transfer to your hands, and from your hands get into the body through the eyes, nose or mouth.
“A lot of upper respiratory infections are caused by hands that got contaminated by someone else’s upper respiratory discharges,” Patrick said.
Basic hand-washing involving soap and water is a relatively simple affair, but the order in which you do things is important. Start with warm water and wet your hands. After that, dispense the soap into your hands.
“What that does is [help] disperse the soap over the hands’ surface,” Patrick said. “If you put the soap in your hands and then wet them, you lose a lot of the soap to the running water.”
Then rub your hands together vigorously for at least 15 to 30 seconds, scrubbing all surfaces of the hands and fingers, Weida said. That friction is key because it dislodges all the germs — bacteria and viruses — from the skin surface.
“To do a thorough job, when you’re standing in front of a sink, it can seem interminable,” Patrick said. “Singing through at a reasonable pace either ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ twice will help you get through it.”
Afterward, rinse your hands briskly in running water to remove the suds — and with them, the germs. “Make sure you rinse thoroughly to get all the soap off because soaps can be drying to your skin,” Patrick said.
Blot your hands dry with a couple of paper towels to finish the job. “Ideally, use the damp towels to then turn the faucet off,” Weida said.
You might also consider using the paper towels to open the door on your way out of the restroom, too, Patrick said.
“How many times have you been in a stall and there’s a toilet flush and the next sound you hear is the person leaving, with no stop at the bathroom sink?” she said.
Weida and Patrick differ on whether your soap should be antibacterial or not.
Although regular soap will do the job, Weida prefers antibacterial soap. “I don’t have any studies showing one way or the other,” he said, “but I tend to lean toward antibacterial.”
But Patrick is concerned that antibacterial soaps can be harsh on the skin, particularly if people wash their hands as often as they should. “If you are washing your hands thoroughly, regular soap is great,” she said.
Both agree that if your hands are visibly clean, and you just want to make sure that you’re not transmitting germs, then an alcohol-based disinfectant gel will work just as well as soap and water.
“The alcohol gel works very well,” Patrick said. “It will kill upwards of 99 percent of the bacteria on your skin, and does it quickly and cleanly.”
Just apply a dab to your hands and rub until it evaporates, Weida said. The friction assists the alcohol in killing the germs on your hands.
In general, you should clean your hands before you eat or after you go to the bathroom, Weida said.
The CDC also recommends washing your hands after changing diapers, before and after tending to someone who is sick, after handling an animal or animal waste, after handling garbage, before and after treating a cut or wound, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
“For me, here in the office, our policy is to use an alcohol-based hand-washing gel both before and after we examine a patient,” Weida said. “Before so I don’t give something to the patient, and after so the patient doesn’t give something to me.”
“People ask me, ‘Gosh, what special shot do you get to keep yourself healthy, seeing all these sick people?’ And I say it’s hand-washing that protects me,” Weida said.