Handwashing: Preventing the Spread of Illness

The COVID-19 pandemic opened our eyes to the benefits of certain safety measures that can prevent the spread of illness. Over the last two years, we’ve learned a lot about masks, disinfecting countertops, and handwashing. Handwashing, in theory, seems like a no-brainer. Keeping our hands clean prevents us from contracting and spreading dangerous germs, right? However, in practice, it’s not as easy as it seems. A 2020 study from the CDC found that one in four Americans isn’t washing their hands regularly. Washing our hands is an essential everyday activity that protects our health and the health of those around us, so it’s important that we wash our hands often and correctly.

How should you wash your hands?

Everyone learns the basics of handwashing pretty early: wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry. However, if you aren’t performing these steps properly, you might be missing out on some of the key benefits of handwashing. For instance, you should be washing your hands with some form of soap. Studies have shown you don’t receive any greater health benefits from antibacterial soap as opposed to regular soap outside of a health care setting, so whatever soap you choose is probably fine. However, some studies have linked increased antibiotic resistance to antibacterial soap, but it isn’t confirmed. Similarly, both liquid and bar soap are equally capable or efficient at removing germs.

Washing your hands with soap and water is the recommended way to wash your hands. If water and soap are not available, washing your hands with hand sanitizer can still help remove germs in cases when you might not have time to fully wash your hands, like after checking out at a register or opening a door. Soap and water will remove the germs that hand sanitizers cannot kill, which ultimately makes this method a better choice. If you do use hand sanitizer, the CDC recommends you use alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Handwashing time is another place where people might encounter errors. You should be washing your hands for at least 20 seconds every time. In 2018, a study from the Journal of Environmental Health found that only five percent of Americans wash their hands long enough to effectively remove all the germs on their hands. Washing your hands for less than 20 seconds increases your risk for germs remaining on your hands after your wash them. The CDC recommends humming the “Happy Birthday” song twice while washing your hands as an easy way to gauge the time.

When should you wash your hands?

The CDC recommends you wash your hands at key times throughout the day. This includes before, during, and after preparing food, especially if you’re handling food known to carry bacteria like raw chicken or unwashed fruits and vegetables. You should always wash your hands before and after meals and after using the toilet. The CDC also recommends you wash your hands after some common, everyday activities that you might not realize, including after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, after touching an animal or animal product like pet treats, and after treating a cut or wound.

What kinds of illnesses can handwashing help prevent?

Handwashing is a great way to prevent a number of illnesses including gastrointestinal illnesses or “bugs” and a lot of respiratory illnesses. Handwashing also protects you from other, less common illnesses that can be contracted by hand including conjunctivitis (pink eye) and MRSA. Viral and bacterial infections can also be transmitted and contracted from our skin. Fortunately for us, increased awareness about handwashing from the pandemic has limited the transmission of many illnesses.

“I am seeing a lot less of stomach bugs and GI illnesses,” said family practice physician Jana Nussen, of TPMG Family Practice of Hampton Roads. People have been washing their hands more and doing so prevents more than just COVID-19. In fact, one study showed that the number of people washing their hands more than six times per day increased from 37 percent to 78 percent in America, according to the World Health Organization. While this increase in handwashing is encouraging, we all need to remember the benefits of handwashing go far beyond the pandemic. Keeping up good handwashing habits is a simple way to keep you and your family safe this holiday season.

Family medicine doctor Jana Nussen, MD

About Jana Nussen, MD

Dr. Jana Nussen grew up in Hampton, Virginia, and went on to pursue her undergraduate degree from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Afterwards, she continued her education at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where she earned her Doctor of Medicine degree.  In 2005, she completed her Family Medicine residency at Bryn Mawr Hospital located outside of Philadelphia, and also became board certified in Family Practice the same year.

After completion of her residency, Dr. Nussen returned to the Hampton Roads area, and has been practicing at TPMG Family Practice of Hampton Roads since.


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