The Importance of Handwashing

We are inundated by media reports and warnings about an expected pandemic flu. Around the world scientists are developing vaccines and are attempting to predict outbreaks. At times it can seem as though matters are beyond our control.

To protect our health, we focus on diet, exercise, and keeping clean homes.

But most of us may be overlooking a very easy way of preventing the spread of germs.

Washing our hands. Properly.

“If you think about it, it is like Health in Your Hands,” says Anne Crasto, Health Promoter at West Hill Community Services. “Adopting this simple habit can play a major role in protecting your body.”

Crasto works at the Scarborough West Community Health Centre where hand-washing seminars are regularly taught to community residents.

Hand washing doesn’t take much time or effort, and provides many rewards. According to Health Canada, our hands spread an estimated 80 per cent of common infectious diseases, such as the common cold and flu.

Infections can be spread through simple contact. Germs become trapped under finger nails, artificial nails, nail polish and rings.

They also hide on door handles, in buses, on telephones, on keyboards, on food, and on many other household objects. Contrary to popular belief, the kitchen, and not the bathroom, is thought to be host to the most disease-causing germs in the average home.

People make contact with these germs, and later touch their eyes, noses, mouths, and even open cuts or sores, without washing up. Severe results can include gastrointestinal illness, shigella, and Hepatitis A.

“The importance can not be stressed enough,” says Joy D’Rozario, a nurse at West Hill Community Services. “Our hands are the number one vehicle used in the spread of all kinds of viruses.”

In their demonstrations, West Hill Community Services targets newcomers to Canada, as well as new parents with their advice. Children, in particular, bring a high number of germs into a household from school and from their playmates.

“Kids should learn healthy practices early on in life, and parents should teach by example to get them in the habit,” says Crasto.

West Hill provides a simple handout describing the proper hand washing technique for all who attend their seminars:Remove all rings and wet your hands with warm running water.

Put a small amount of liquid soap in the palm of one hand. Bar soaps are not as hygienic as liquid soaps because they stay moist and attract germs. If a bar soap is the only option it should be stored on a rack so that the bar doesn’t sit in water.

  1. Rub your hands together for 15-20 seconds so you produce lather. Make sure you scrub between your fingers, under your fingernails and the backs of your hands. Don’t forget your thumbs.
  2. Rinse your hands well with clean running water. Try not to handle the faucets once your hands are clean. Use a paper towel to turn off the water.
  3. Dry your hands with a single use paper towel. If you use a hand towel be sure to change it daily. During cold and flu season you may want to give each family member his or her own hand towel.
  4. Use hand lotion to put moisture back into your skin if your hands are dry.
  5. Model good handwashing techniques to your children. Have them sing a song like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star while rubbing their hands together to teach them the amount of time it takes to clean their hands properly.

Some microorganisms (called normal flora) are actually essential for human life, and are normally present on skin, as well as in our respiratory, intestinal, and genital tracts.

Others, known as pathogens, aren’t normal to the body. These are the microbes commonly referred to as “germs” that need to be cleaned off. Often they can be bacteria or viruses, and are usually associated with disease.

Pathogens can enter the body in many ways, but touching another person or a contaminated object or surface is the biggest threat.

Though there is no exact number of times a person should be washing a day, most professionals would recommend that when in doubt, wash your hands.

Research published in the July 2005 issue of the medical journal, The Lancet, supports this theory. A study measured the health impact of proper handwashing among 900 households in Karachi, Pakistan. Those given handwashing and personal hygiene education, as well as regular soap reported a 50-percent decrease in pneumonia and diarrhea, and a 34-percent decrease in skin infections.

“Just as regular exercise is a lifestyle change, so is handwashing,” says D’Rozario. “[If] you do it often enough, it will be become more a part of your routine.”

West Hill Community Services and Toronto Public Health recommend that people wash their hands after sneezing, after coughing, after handling foods, before and after eating, after using the washroom, after changing diapers, before and after a cigarette, before and after work, after handling garbage, after handling pets, after wearing gloves, and after coming in from outdoors.

According to their handouts, antibacterial soap is not required but ensures bacteria are dead, rather that simply displaced. More importantly, liquid soap is best as germs remain on bars after being used.

Other tips include always carrying Kleenex, as well as hand sanitizer for times when you can’t get to a sink. So you can always wash your hands when you need to.

“It’s a simple practice,” says Crasto. “Something fast you should always remember to do.”