The Easiest, Cheapest Way to Stay Healthy
An easy action that takes just 20 seconds can cut your risk for catching a cold, flu or other contagious diseases by up to 51 percent, recent studies show. And if everyone made it a regular habit, one million deaths a year would be prevented, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which calls this habit the single most important way to avoid spreading infection.
Frequent hand washing with soap and water can save you money—and misery—by helping you avoid medical bills, missed workdays, or having to stay home with a sick child. And you’ll also protect your friends and family: A CDC survey found that 40 million Americans a year fall prey to illnesses spread by hands, which can harbor up to 500,000 bacteria per square centimeter.
Clean Hands Save Lives
Not only does lathering up protect you from respiratory illnesses like colds, but it also helps ward off more serious conditions, including hepatitis A, meningitis, and potentially life-threatening superbug infections, such as MRSA. Overall, 80 percent of all infectious diseases are spread by touch.
Here are just a few research findings that illustrate the protective power of clean hands:
- Kids who washed their hands four times a day had 25 percent fewer school absences due to contagious diseases and 57 percent fewer sick days due to GI bugs.
- When 40,000 Navy recruits were instructed to wash their hands five times a day, their rate of respiratory infections fell by 45 percent, according to a study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
- A 2011 study found that when students disinfected their hands three times a day with ethanol gel sanitizer, there was a 66 percent drop in pupils who missed four or more days due to illness and a 20 percent rise in students with zero absences, compared to data from the previous year.
- Hand washing reduces risk for colds and other respiratory illnesses by 21 percent, according to the CDC.
- Washing with soap and water lowers risk for diarrhea and severe or fatal intestinal infections by up to 59 percent, a systematic review published in Lancet reported.
Our Dirty Little Secrets
Ninety-one percent of Americans say they wash their hands after using a public toilet, but an observational study conducted in the six US airports found that only 26 percent of men and 17 percent of women actually did. And here’s something to ponder before you shake someone’s hand during cold and flu season: A recent survey also found that only 24 percent of men and 39 percent of women always wash their hands after they cough or sneeze.
Hand hygiene among doctors is even worse, with 73 percent of pediatric ICU physicians claiming that they soaped up between patients, but when the MDs were secretly observed, only 10 percent actually washed. If doctors and nurses were more diligent about hand hygiene, up to 80,000 Americans lives would be saved each year.
Experts caution patients to ask healthcare providers a simple question before any hands-on exam: “Did you wash your hands?” That’s important even if the provider is wearing gloves, reports Texas Health Resources Infection Control.
When to Wash Away Germs
To stay healthy and avoid spreading germs to others, the CDC and other experts advise washing your hands before and after preparing food, before eating, after changing diapers or using the toilet, after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose, after touching an animal, and after touching garbage.
Follow these simple steps:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and remove jewelry. A recent study compared bacteria counts on the hands of 50 healthcare workers who wore rings to 50 who didn’t. Hand washing lowered levels of staph bacteria by nearly 50 percent for those without rings, but only 29 percent among ring wearers.
- Lather up with soap. Avoid antibacterial products, which don’t work any better than regular soap, according to the Mayo Clinic, and can even lead to bacteria becoming resistant to that antimicrobial ingredient.
- Rub hands together for at least 20 seconds. To get the timing right, kids can recite the alphabet as they scrub. Pay equal attention to all surfaces of both hands: Research shows that righties don’t wash their right hand as carefully as the left, while the opposite is true for lefties. Fingernails and fingertips typically harbor the most microorganisms.
- Rinse thoroughly under running water—the force of the stream sweeps dirt and germs down the drain. And be sure to dry well, which helps rub away remaining microbes. A study published in Epidemiology and Infection found that when people touched someone else with freshly washed, but damp hands, they transferred a whopping 68,000 microorganisms, compared to just 140 when their hands were dry.
- The CDC says that while soap and water is best, hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol can do in a pinch. However, they don’t eliminate all types of germs.