As we swing into the holiday season, we're also getting ready to come into contact with a whole lot of people. In many cases, these would be a whole lot of people who might be carrying cold germs or a flu virus.
How do you protect yourself? How do you avoid spending the holidays in bed feeling like you've caught a bad case of the "bah humbugs?"
It's simple. Wash your hands, wash them well, and wash them often. With soap.
More powerful than a speeding vaccine
The Centers for Disease Control says that washing our hands often is the best way to avoid disease. In fact, the CDC says that regular hand washing with soap could save more lives than any vaccine or medical treatment. Each year, more than 3.5 million children younger than 5 die from pneumonia (an infection that fills the lungs with fluid) or diarrhea-type diseases. But if people around the world would wash their hands with soap more often, many of these deaths could be avoided.
And hand washing is much less expensive than drugs.
Just think: what if the cure for the common cold was something just as common – soap and water?
In the last few years, the CDC and other groups decided hand washing is so important they started Global Hand Washing Day. This year's Global Hand Washing Day was Oct. 15. Countries from China to Peru took part, doing everything from putting on school programs to building hand washing stations in rural communities.
Germs, germs, everywhere
The Mayo Clinic explains that as you go through your day, you touch people, surfaces, and objects hundreds of times. Each time, your hands pick up germs. From there all you have to do is rub your eyes or scratch your nose, and it's off to the races. The germs are now in your eyes, nose, or mouth.
The Mayo experts know it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free. But like the CDC, they say the best way to control bacteria, viruses and other nasty microbes (tiny germs) is by washing your hands often with soap and water.
The right time to wash your hands
- Before, during, and after preparing food, especially raw meat or poultry
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- Before putting in or taking out contact lenses
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, toys, or animal waste
- After touching garbage
- After handling anything that could be contaminated, like a cleaning cloth or dirty shoes
- Whenever they look dirty
The right way to wash your hands
There's more to washing your hands than holding them under the faucet. But when you consider that 30 seconds of washing your hands is much shorter than five days of being sick, it's a fair trade.
Here's the CDC's method for proper hand washing that sends those germs packing:
- Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap
- Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails
- Keep rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. How long is 20 seconds? About as long as it takes to hum the "Happy Birthday" song two times, all the way through
- Rinse your hands well under running water
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry
Hand sanitizer: it's not soap, but it's better than nothing
The experts agree that washing with soap and water is still the best way to reduce the number of germs on your hands. But if you can't get soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly lower the number of germs on your hands, but they don't get rid of all kinds of germs. For example, when your hands are visibly dirty (you can see dirt), hand sanitizers won't work. That's why hand washing is still thought of as the best.
You can find hand sanitizers just about everywhere these days. They're often at the checkout of your local grocery or drug store. In fact, many schools ask kids to carry bottles of hand sanitizers in their backpacks.
How to use hand sanitizer
- Put the sanitizer in the palm of one hand
- Rub your hands together
- Rub the sanitizer all over your hands and between your fingers until your hands are dry
Antimicrobial wipes or swabs are another choice. Look for wipes with a high percentage of alcohol. And again, if you can see dirt on your hands, the wipes won't work. So don't waste them; just wash with soap and water.
Antibacterial soaps: hurt or help?
You've probably seen all the antibacterial hand soaps out there. But the Mayo Clinic says that antibacterial soap is no better at killing germs than regular soap. In fact, using antibacterial soap may even help grow bacteria that resist the product's antimicrobial agents – making it harder to kill these germs in the future.
So in this case, the old way really is the best way. A good scrub with soap and water is all you need.
Rub-a-dub for kids
Help children stay healthy by reminding them to wash their hands properly and often. Show your children how it's done by washing your hands together. And make sure your children sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice while you're at it. This keeps them from rushing through the job.
You might also post reminder notes about hand washing at your child's eye level. Some people make a chart to hang by the bathroom sink. Every time their children wash their hands, they earn a star.
And if your child can't reach the sink on his or her own, keep a step stool handy.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine for children and teens as well as adults, especially when soap and water aren't handy. Show your child the right way to use the sanitizer. And don't forget to remind your child to make sure the sanitizer is dry before he or she touches anything. Store the container safely away after use.
Vital for children in childcare or groups
When young children are cared for in groups outside the home, they're already at higher risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal (digestive system) diseases. Group settings make it easy for these to spread to the other children, and then on to family members.
Make sure your childcare provider promotes frequent hand washing and/or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Be sure to ask if the kids are made to wash their hands several times a day – not just before meals. Also note whether diaper-changing areas are cleaned after each use, and whether eating and diaper-changing areas are kept a safe distance apart.
An easy way to help stay healthy
It really doesn't take much time or effort, but hand washing can make a world of difference, especially when it comes to preventing deadly disease. It's a simple habit that could be well worth your time, too.