Infection Control: Hand Washing

Steps showing how to wash your hands
Hand-washing is like a "do-it-yourself" vaccine for a range of illnesses.

You may already know that keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to prevent a bunch of illnesses, but there is a lot more to keeping your mitts germ-free than you may think.

A good old hand washing, with soap and running warm water, is the most effective form of infection control we have. With colds, flu's and other seasonal viruses and bacteria eluding us, Australia Wide First Aid thought we would remind you what it takes to really keep your hands germ-free.

Hand-washing is like a "do-it-yourself" vaccine  for a range of illnesses. Research shows that compared to non-hand washer, those who wash their hands four times a day can have up to 24 per cent fewer sick days due to respiratory infections and 51 per cent fewer days off due to tummy or gastro viruses. Not only that, but effective hand washing has said to have the potential to eliminate half of all cases of food-borne illnesses.

Here is how you can brush up on your hand washing basics

Don't Rush - A quick splash under cold running water, isn't enough. To get germ free, you will need to do a thorough wash under clean, running water, lasting 40 to 60 seconds (including the drying) with lots of rubbing together of the hands. Don't know how to time 40 to 60 seconds? Try singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.

Soap Up - If there is soap nearby, use it. Any germs on your hands will be attached to the layer of acidic fats, oils and cellular debris on the surface of the skin. Using soap will help the germs become free.

Antibacterial Soap - It may be tempting to use antibacterial soaps to be sure you get rid of all the nasties, but there is no proof these products work any better than regular soap and water. Rather, there are fears that these antibacterial products may actually cause harm by encouraging bacteria to become resistant to their active ingredients.

Running Water - It is better to use running water as clean hands are likely to become contaminated again if you wash them in a sink of bowl of water.

Temperature Debate -  Very hot water may kill disease-causing microbes, but the temperature needed (80degreesC) would leave you with significant burns. Soap lathers better in warm water, which is also less likely to strip away the natural oils in your skin than either hot or cold water. The point to remember is "it is totally impossible to kill the bacteria on your skin only via the temperature of the water you use to wash your hands".

No Water - A bottle of alcohol-based sanitiser or gel in your bag can be useful if you need to clean your hands and you can't access water, for example when you're out and about and need clean hands to eat food. Australia Wide First Aid recommends you to choose a product with 60% alcohol, which kills germs by direct contact with the alcohol.

Drying Matters - commercial hand dryers work well, but paper towel or cloth towels are best used at home or in work environments. Drying your hands is just as important as washing.

Don't Touch - Even if your hands are filthy, if you keep them away from your face (or food) the germs will find it harder to make their way inside your body. Germs can be easily transferred and readily enter cells through our mouth, eyes or ears, making us sick.

Once your hand washing technique is mastered

Make sure you take control of other ways infection is easily spread through your home or workplace.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly using soap and water within 20 seconds after using the toilet, before preparing food and after touching shared equipment. Dry your hand thoroughly with paper towel.
  • Use hand sanitiser regularly to avoid the spread of infection.
  • Using an alcohol wipe or spray that is at least 60% alcohol, wipe down your desk, phone and keyboard.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your inner elbow, covering your nose and mouth.
  • Use and dispose of tissue appropriately

One trick of avoiding the spread of germs this flu season is the fist pump, rather than a hand shake. Will you try it?

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