The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

September 19, 2012

Hand washing: How and why

By Judy Rupp, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

— You count on your hands to do your dirty, as well as your clean, work. You comfort a baby with your hands — and change his or her diaper. You prepare raw chicken for cooking with your hands — and put the finishing touches on a birthday cake. In between the dirty and the clean, it’s important to wash your hands.    

A recent study reported that about 100 trillion bacteria — three or four pounds worth — live on the human body. Most of these germs do good rather than bad things for your health, but your bacteria are not the same as mine. And any touching with the hands can spread the germs.    

We all learned about hand washing in grade school. It’s the best way to avoid getting or passing along colds, the flu or even more serious diseases. Unfortunately, most Americans are more lax about it than they want to admit. One study using video cameras found that one of every three women and two of every three men neglected to wash their hands after using a public toilet. Yet when questioned, more than 90 percent of Americans claim they do wash their hands after going to the toilet.     

WHY SHOULD YOU WASH? You have thousands, if not millions, of bacteria swarming all over your hands every minute. But they are friendly bacteria who enjoy a good relationship with your own immune system. If the person whose hand you shake has an infectious disease, your own bacteria are likely to fight them off. But even if these bacteria don’t harm you, you could pass them on to someone whose immune system is not as healthy as yours.    

Hand washing became recognized as a major tool of infection control when a 19th century Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, noted that mothers who delivered babies at his hospital were dying at a rate five times greater than those who delivered at home. Most, he discovered, had been treated by student physicians who had been working on cadavers during an anatomy class just before making their maternity rounds.    

As an experiment, Dr. Semmel-weis started requiring that his students wash their hands before treating the new mothers. A novel idea at the time, strict hand washing resulted in a prompt reduction of maternity ward deaths.    

WHEN TO WASH: During cold and flu season or any time you’re sick or have been around sick persons, it’s important to wash your hands frequently.     

Other times you should wash your hands include: 1. Before eating; 2. After using the toilet; 3. Before preparing food; 4. After touching raw meat, poultry or fish; 5. When you’ve changed a baby’s diaper; 6. When you’ve petted or cared for pets; 7. After handling garbage; 8. Before inserting or removing a contact lens.

HOW TO WASH: Just placing your hands under running water for a few minutes will do very little, if anything, to get rid of bacteria.    

Use warm water and soap, lathering up all over the hands, in between the fingers, under the nails and up the wrists.     

Take at least 20 seconds — or the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice — to wash, rubbing the hands vigorously together before rinsing. Then dry the hands thoroughly with a clean towel or paper towel.  Damp hands spread twice as many germs as dry hands.    

Antibiotic soap is not required. A comprehensive University of Oregon study found that regular soaps are just as effective as consumer-grade antibacterial soaps containing triclosan in preventing illness and removing bacteria.     

One worry is that antibacterial soaps may interfere with or destroy some of your beneficial germs and, over the long term, lead to antibiotic resistance.    

If you have sensitive skin, try washing your hands in cold water. Warm or even hot water adds very little to hand washing. Alcohol-based hand cleaners may be less likely to irritate the skin. They are also handy when soap and water aren’t readily available. These cleaners, however, are believed to be less effective for viruses than for bacteria, and they can dry the skin.

If you’re concerned about the time it takes to wash your hands properly, think about the time it takes to recover from an infectious illness. One study found that Detroit school children who washed their hands four times a day had significantly fewer sick days because of respiratory or stomach illnesses. That’s a plus for parents and teachers as well as children.

Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.