Hand hygiene: Reducing the spread of germs through hand washing
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In the last edition of Dr. Z's Medical Report I told you that getting an annual flu vaccination is the single best thing you can do to protect yourself from the ravages of the influenza virus. But we all know that there are lots of other germs out there besides the flu. From the common cold to MRSA to food borne bugs, our world is literally crawling with microorganisms, many of which are just itching to hop a ride on your hands and from there to be placed, by you, directly into your eyes, ears, nose and/or mouth.
So while the flu vaccine's a great idea, and something you can forget about once it's done, hand hygiene is at least as important, if not more (in the bigger picture beyond influenza), and one that must be done over and over and over again. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the importance of keeping your hands clean. And I'm not just talking about the bathroom (although that's certainly a great place to start). Every surface that you touch was likely also touched recently by someone else. And that someone might have just coughed or sneezed into their hand, might have just touched some other contaminated surface or might have just come from the bathroom. Or you yourself might have done any of these same actions covering your own hands with any number of germs.
And while having germs on your hands is not necessarily itself a big problem (your skin will keep them on the surface where they belong), we all have the unconscious tendency to frequently and repeatedly touch our eyes (scratch that itch, rub that sleepy feeling), put our fingers in our mouths (bite your nails, dislodge that bit of food, ponder a problem by saying “hmm” with a finger on your lips, the list is endless), tidy up our nostrils (not to mention picking our nose â€“ not that any of you would do such a thing, but since I see it happen all the time somebody out there that is), or otherwise deposit germs right onto a highly vulnerable mucosal surface. Of course, that doesn't mean instant illness, our bodies are far more advanced that that, but the point is that hand borne germs are universal, and, there are ways to minimize your risk of getting sick.
Which brings me to hand washing. It's important and you should do it often. Whenever possible use warm soapy water. And scrub your hands for 15-20 seconds (and by the way, turn off the water while you're scrubbing â€“ it wastes both water and the energy it took to heat it up to have it simply run down the drain). Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Wash your hands after you sneeze or cough (even if you use a tissue). Wash your hands after you've been out and about (touching who knows how many different surfaces).
Can't always find a place to wash? Don't like the effects all that washing and drying has on your skin? Use alcohol-based wipes and/or gels. Buy several bottles of gel and keep them handy. Keep one in the car. Keep one on your desk at work. They even have ones small enough to carry around. Just squeeze some gel and rub your hands till they are dry, which happens in seconds. And don't be concerned that killing all those germs might somehow lead to mutant, drug-resistant monsters. It doesn't work that way. Unlike antibiotics, whose overuse can lead to drug resistance, alcohol-based products don't work through any biochemical or physiological processes, it's simply a phenomenon related to drying and the bugs can't become resistant.
Now even though I have gone on emphasizing the need for hand hygiene, let's keep things in perspective. There's no need to become either obsessive or compulsive about this. There's no need to emulate Howard Hughes either. Just bear in mind that your hands are often coming into contact with and carrying germs and that using some common sense to keep them clean is a good idea.
Do you have any practical advice for maintaining good hand hygiene? Post your comments to this blog and share them with others. We welcome your ideas.
Video: Hand Hygiene for Health Care Workers - Germ Smart
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