It's definitely a germ-ridden winter season. Influenza has been hitting particularly hard, with more than 38 million illnesses around the country. And let’s not forget the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that originated in Wuhan, China, but is spreading throughout the world. The coronavirus has caused at least 38,556 deaths and more than 796,000 sicknesses—including 163,575 cases in the United States.
While influenza and the coronavirus are scary, there’s an easy way to prevent both: Wash. Your. Hands. Influenza and the coronavirus are respiratory infections, and they usually get into the body through mucous membranes of the nose and mouth, says Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., biology professor and director of the microbiology research lab at William Paterson University and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World. “You can pick up germs whenever you touch what other people have touched,” she says.
Imagine, for example, that someone coughs in their hand and touches a doorknob. Then you touch the same doorknob and pick up the germs. The bacteria might get into your body if you rub your eye, wipe your nose, touch your mouth, or eat a sandwich. But washing your hands can not only protect you from the flu and coronavirus, but also the common cold, stomach bugs, and countless other illnesses.
“The first line of defense is thorough hand-washing at the appropriate time,” says Dr. Wahrman. Adults and children should wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. You can have your child sing “Happy Birthday” twice in order to meet this timeframe, recommends Kathleen DiCaprio, Ph.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus. Technique is just as important as timing, though, so read on for the proper way to wash your hands, plus tips for teaching kids how to keep their hands clean.
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What Is the Proper Hand-Washing Technique?
Hand-washing is especially important before eating or before touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. You should also wash after handling communal items, such as doorknobs, bus poles, toys in the waiting room, and tray tables on airplanes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following technique for proper hand-washing:
STEP 1. Wet your hands with clean running water. It can be either warm or cold because temperature doesn’t impact effectiveness. Turn off the faucet after wetting your hands to save water.
STEP 2. Apply soap to your hand, which will further lift microbes from your skin. There’s no need to choose an antibacterial formulation; regular soap works just as well for those who don’t work in health care settings. “Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the surfactants in soap lift soil and microbes from skin, and people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap, which further removes germs,” says the CDC.
STEP 3. Lather the soap in your hands. Rub them together for at least 20 seconds and coat every surface—the backs and fronts of your hands, between your fingers, under the nails, etc.
STEP 4. Use clean running water to rinse your hands. The dirt and microbes will wash down the drain.
STEP 5. Dry your hands to eliminate germ transfer. The CDC recommends a clean paper towel or air dryer. Avoid using shared towels in public places, says Dr. Wahrman.
Hand-Washing Tips for Kids
If you have kids, you probably understand the struggle of hand hygiene. Little ones would much rather spend 20 seconds doing something fun, like watching TV or playing with toys, instead of washing their hands. Here are some child-friendly hand-washing tips for kids to prevent disease transmission:
Show and tell. Thoroughly wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating. Kids often learn through imitation.
Remind them often. It takes time to integrate hand-washing into a kid’s daily routine, so you'll need to remind him often. Be patient!
Get a step stool. If your kid can’t comfortably reach the faucet, he's more likely to get frustrated. Invest in a step stool for your bathroom counter and/or kitchen sink.
Teach with music. Not only does a catchy song remind kids of proper technique, it also lets them know how long to wash hands (keep scrubbing until the song is done). You can find plenty of song options online, but here’s an example to the tune of "Frère Jacques":
Tops and bottoms
Tops and bottoms
All around your hands
All around your hands
Now they’re clean
Now they’re clean
(Repeat once more)
By Eric Jeon
What About Hand Sanitizer?
Don’t have access to soap and water? As an alternative, you can use hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol, says Dr. DiCaprio. Keep in mind that hand-washing is always preferred, though, since sanitizers don’t eliminate all types of germs. They also might not work as well if you have greasy or dirty hands, according to the CDC.
To use hand sanitizer, follow manufacturer instructions. Squirt the recommended amount on your palm (if you can't find instructions, use a quarter-sized blob). Rub the sanitizer over all areas of your hands until they’re dry.
How to Prevent Drying Out Your Hands
Hand washing has plenty of disease-banishing benefits, but there's one major downside: It dries out your hands. "The skin that protects our hands is thin and delicate, so it is important to be sensitive, not aggressive, while taking precaution," says board-certified dermatologist Jason Emer, M.D. Here are some tips to prevent dryness and chapping:
- Use a moisturizer immediately after washing your hands or using sanitizer. Dr. Emer says that coconut oil mixed with aloe vera also works in a pinch.
- Wash hands with cool or warm water. "Hot water can strip your skin's natural moisture, which can compound with other causes of dryness to make your hands and knuckles tight, itchy, and uncomfortable," says Dr. Emer. Hot water might also irritate your cuticles.
- Keep your eczema, psoriasis, and other skin conditions under control, since excess hand washing can exaggerate them.