Wash your way to less colds and flu

December 2012

Washing hands regularly to avoid diseases and germs

What’s more powerful than a speeding vaccine? Soap and water! Wash your hands, wash them well, and wash them often, and you’ll protect yourself from illness.

Washing your hands often is the best way to avoid disease. And it’s much cheaper than drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that regular hand-washing with soap could save more lives than any vaccine or medical treatment.

How so? As you go through your day, you touch people, surfaces, and objects hundreds of times. Each time, your hands pick up germs. As soon as you rub your eyes or scratch your nose, it's off to the races for those germs. They’re now in your eyes, nose, or mouth, ready to make you sick.

It's impossible to keep your hands germ-free. But the best way to control bacteria, viruses, and other nasty microbes (tiny germs) is by washing your hands often with soap and water.

When to wash

  • Before, during, and after preparing food, especially raw meat or poultry
  • Before eating
  • 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, or animal feed, toys, or waste
  • After touching garbage
  • After handling anything that could be germy, like a cleaning cloth or dirty shoes
  • Whenever your hands look dirty

How to wash

Don’t just rinse your hands under the faucet and call them clean. You need to scrub them with soap for at least 20 seconds. (If that seems like forever, think about being in bed for a week with the flu!)

Follow these steps every time you wash:

  1. Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Lather and scrub well. Don’t forget the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Keep scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. That’s about as long as it takes to hum the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel, or air dry.

If you don’t have soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Antimicrobial wipes or swabs are another choice. Look for wipes with a high percentage of alcohol. Although these sanitizers can quickly lower the number of germs on your hands, they don't get rid of all kinds of germs. Rub the sanitizer all over your hands and between your fingers until your hands are dry.

Sanitizers can’t remove visible dirt. You need soap and water for that. And skip the antibacterial soap. It’s no better at killing germs than regular soap. It may even help grow bacteria that resist the product's antimicrobial agents — making it harder to kill these germs in the future.

Help kids stay healthier

Regular hand washing with soap could save more lives than any vaccine or medical treatment.

Remind your kids to wash their hands properly and often. Show them how it's done by washing your hands together. Sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice while you're at it. This keeps kids from rushing through the job. If your child can't reach the sink on his own, keep a step stool handy.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine for children and teens, especially when soap and water aren't handy. Show your child the right way to use the sanitizer. Remind her to make sure the sanitizer is dry before she touches anything. Store the container safely away after use.
Hand-washing is extra important for kids in school or group child care. Make sure your child’s teacher or caregiver promotes frequent hand-washing. (Sanitizers are OK too.) Ask if 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.

Understand health care and medical insurance terms with a  glossary of explanations

Look up healthcare terms

From abrasion to X-ray, the Humana glossary explains common insurance and medical terms.

Browse our healthcare glossary

Blink, and they’re grown

Vision problems can begin at an early age. Take your kids for regular eye exams.

Read age-by-age eye care
Learn about annual vaccinations to fight the flu and protect yourself in the season

Fend off the flu with a vaccine

Flu season is nothing to sneeze at and for some can lead to more serious health issues. You can protect yourself and those around you by getting your annual flu vaccine.

Read about fighting the flu