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What have your hands touched today?

Mar 03, 2016
Our hands are a highway for the spread of illness. It can start at the grocer: maybe with a parent changing an infant’s diaper or someone sneezing into an open hand.







 By Dr. Colin Lee


Our hands are a highway for the spread of illness.  It can start at the grocer: maybe with a parent changing an infant’s diaper or someone sneezing into an open hand. If they don’t wash their hands afterwards, all the food they handle, the doorknobs they touch, the money they hand over become new corridors for transmitting viruses or other germs.

Teaching handwashing to children will establish habits that can protect them all their lives. Recent studies in child-care settings have shown that strongly promoting handwashing with the little ones has the potential to reduce diarrhea cases by one-third. That’s a dramatic difference and one that has important bearing on children whose nutritional intake and development can be seriously affected by a bad bout of an intestinal infection.

Adults need to heed the message as well. At this time of year when colds and the flu are often present, handwashing is a front-line defence. The flu shot is hailed as your best prevention against influenza; but the vaccine alone is not perfect protection. As well, scores of respiratory viruses are not preventable by vaccine. Studies have shown proper handwashing using soap and running water will reduce the risk of catching cold viruses.

Among health care workers, good hand hygiene is an expected standard of professional care. It is one of the five key initiatives recommended by the World Alliance for Patient Safety. There is good reason to give it such high priority: currently in Canada, one out of every nine hospital patients acquires an infection while they’re being treated for something else. With resistance to antibiotics on the rise, handwashing is a measure that can be relied on to reduce the spread of infection.

Even though these facts are widely known, the evidence shows most people still do not wash their hands, or cover their mouth or nose when they cough or sneeze. As a result, the germ “highway” is a very crowded thoroughfare.

There are two recommended ways to perform hand hygiene: one using soap and water to remove the germs and the other using hand sanitizer. To wash hands correctly wet your hands with water, apply soap, lather to make bubbles, rub for at least 15 seconds, rinse, and dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel then turn off the taps with the same towel.

In order to use a hand sanitizer properly, hands should not look dirty before beginning the rubbing process. The sanitizer must be at least 60 per cent alcohol and can be either gel or foam. Place an amount the size of a loonie in the middle of your palm to rub your hands together for at least 15 seconds or until dry. A quick way to gauge 15 seconds is by singing two Happy Birthdays in succession.

 Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill microorganisms. They are more accessible to the user than sinks; they decrease bacterial counts on hands; they are kinder to the skin than soap and water, and they contain emollients to improve the condition of skin. Hand sanitizers can be purchased in most stores.

Hand hygiene should be practised before and after eating and preparing any food, touching an ill person, and inserting or removing contact lenses.  Let’s not forget, either, after using the toilet, changing a diaper, touching an animal, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing into your hands, and handling garbage.

Dr. Lee is an associate medical officer of health with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit



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