This Simple, Every Day Task Could Save Countless Lives

Every year millions of people get sick around the world, and too many die. A large majority of these illnesses and deaths could be prevented through a simple, basic, everyday task: handwashing.

Researchers estimate that roughly one million deaths could be prevented annually if everyone washed their hands regularly. With National Handwashing Awareness Week going on this week, let’s review how this simple task can help us sustain good health, and prevent others from getting sick.

Germs are literally everywhere: on your phone, the table, your keyboard, on doorknobs and hardware, a deck of cards, your steering wheel, on the grocery cart, etc… Our bodies become susceptible to these germs when we subconsciously touch our bodies through our noses, our mouths, or our eyes. (Just think about how many times you may rub your eyes, or pick something out of your teeth with your fingers). We can’t always expect our immune system to fight off these bacteria, especially since the immune systems in seniors are weaker than they once were. But we can instill a habit of washing our hands routinely to prevent germs from entering our bodies.
Studies have shown that good handwashing habits can reduce the number of respiratory infections (ie. the cold or flu) by up to 20 percent, and diarrheal infections by 33 percent. Proper handwashing can help prevent infections and many foodborne illnesses as well. In fact, a majority of foodborne disease outbreaks are spread through contaminated hands. According to the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) about one in six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 people die– all from foodborne illnesses.

A quick run of your hands under tap water is hardly what experts would call washing your hands. In fact, scientists explain you should rinse your hands with clean, warm water first, then apply soap (either a bar or liquid). Lather your hands well and make sure to clean all areas of your hands: your palms, the backs of your hands, your fingers, and under your nails. This should take roughly twenty seconds. After lathering, run your hands back under the clean, warm water to rinse off. Complete your handwashing with drying it on a clean towel, or allowing your hands to air dry.

If clean water and soap aren’t available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer could be used. The sanitizer should contain at least 60 percent alcohol to work effectively and kill the germs. A study on alcohol gel hand sanitizer in the classroom found that fewer students (almost 20 percent) missed school due to infection when using sanitizer. Some people mistakenly use sanitizer regularly in place of handwashing. However, handwashing is always more reliable than sanitizer.

When you think about how often you come into contact with germs every day, you should understand that washing your hands regularly is a good habit to build. Here are some other key times to wash:
  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the restroom, changing diapers, or cleaning up a child who has used the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal food or treats animal cages or animal feces
  • After touching garbage
  • If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy

Opting to not wash your hands isn’t just gross, it’s unhealthy. Those who don’t wash their hands are more susceptible to contracting colds and other viruses, as well as spreading bacteria and germs to others. Those who come in contact with these germs can get acne, diarrhea, or pink eye. More severe reactions could result in food poisoning, hepatitis A, the Epstein-Barr Virus, and death.

Handwashing is critical to not catching an infection in the first place. Experts say that handwashing is the number one way to prevent the spread of illnesses and diseases. Be vigilant with handwashing to help reduce the number of infections spread. Caregivers should be particularly prudent so as not to infect their patients, who likely have weaker immune systems. Twenty seconds of handwashing is much more bearable than falling ill with an infection.