Monday Medical: Hand-washing a simple solution

Washing your hands is important enough to sing about

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Sanitation studies

A study of 305 Detroit school children found that youngsters who washed their hands four times a day had 24 percent fewer sick days because of respiratory illness and 51 percent fewer days because of an upset stomach. (Source: Reuters New Media)

In a Minnesota study, day care teachers helped children wash their hands every morning when they arrived, and the staff disinfected all areas parents may have touched. The result was 50 percent fewer illnesses at the day cares. (Source: 2006 Minnesota Hand washing Tool Kit)

Other things to remember to prevent spreading germs

- Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands

- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth

- When sick, stay home from school, work or other activities where you could infect others

- When sick, avoid using public transportation including traveling by plane

Most people know that if they share a straw, cup or eating utensil with someone else, they risk transferring germs. But do most people think about this with doorknobs, shopping carts and ATMs? Or any surface touched by multiple people throughout the day?

Germs, such as bacteria or viruses such as the seasonal flu or the common cold, can linger on surfaces for two to eight hours, depending on conditions. Viruses do not like hot and humid climates, so the cold, dry winter here in Steamboat Springs is ideal for germs.

Since it is impossible to disinfect every surface every time it is touched, the only solution - and your best defense against infection - is to wash your hands often.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some scientists estimate that up to 80 percent of all infections are transferred by hands.

The CDC recommends that everyone wash their hands after using the toilet, taking out the garbage, changing a diaper, sneezing, coughing or blowing their nose. It also is recommended to wash hands after touching pets.

Other key times to wash up are before and after preparing food, before eating and when coming home from school or work, shopping or any activity. When soap and water are not available, keep hand sanitizer handy.

"If you've been touching objects throughout the day, you can assume your hands are contaminated," said Steve Hilley, Yampa Valley Medical Center Infection Prevention Coordinator.

He estimates he washes his hands with soap and water a dozen or so times a day, and he uses hand sanitizer an additional five times daily.

"We can do our part in preventing the spread of disease-causing agents with proper hand washing," Hilley said. "Not only should we wash hands frequently, we need to do so thoroughly."

When you wash your hands, use warm running water, lather up with liquid soap and then focus on the process. Rub the front and back of your hands, between fingers and around the nails. Remember that germs like to hang out under or around jewelry or watches.

Keep in mind that right-handed people tend to wash their left hands more thoroughly than their right hands, and vice versa for left-handed people.

Liquid soap generally is better than bar soap. Germs can grow on bar soap and be transferred from person to person. Antibacterial soaps versus regular soap? There is no evidence that antibacterial soaps are more effective for preventing infection or killing disease-causing germs.

Many people do not wash long enough to remove germs. Experts say it takes 20 seconds of washing under warm water with soap to get rid of germs. That's a 20-second break, a few times a day, to help you fight off infection.

After 20 seconds of your favorite tune, use a clean towel to dry your hands and turn off the faucet.

How long is 20 seconds? It is about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice through. Or to sing the ABC song, great for kids while adults supervise that they are washing properly.

It is also roughly the amount of time it takes Neil Diamond to sing this fitting verse of "Sweet Caroline": "Hands : Touchin' hands : Reachin' out : Touching me : Touching you : Sweet Caroline!"

Health experts agree that washing hands is the single most important thing you can do to stay healthy. With frequent hand washing, you also are doing your part to prevent the spread of illness throughout the community.

Hilley reminds you to wash for 20 seconds by singing "Sweet Caroline" with a couple of changes. He suggests: "Hands, washin' hands, reachin' out, touching things, touching you, sweet Clean Hands!"

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