One of the best things you can do to prevent getting sick is also the simplest—wash your hands. Wash them often. Wash them well. Many diseases are spread through hand-to-hand or hand-to-food contact. You can help prevent illnesses such as colds, flu, gastrointestinal disorders, food-borne infections, infectious diarrhea and meningitis with proper hand hygiene.
Each day, your hands pick up scads of germs from people, pets, food and surfaces like tables, doorknobs and railings. You can infect yourself when you touch your eyes, nose, mouth or food. If you think you’re clean, consider this: Studies show one in three people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. That person who opened the door ahead of you this morning could be one of them.
Soap loosens and dissolves microorganisms so water can wash them away. As you rub your hands together, you also remove skin cells that contain germs. Soap may dissolve the membrane surface of some viruses, too, which stops them from being transmitted.
Store shelves are packed with soaps containing antibacterial agents that destroy microbes. While these products seem to make sense, they may be more costly and are not necessarily better than plain soap and water since it’s the scrubbing and rinsing that remove germs. Some experts say these soaps contribute to the problem of resistant bacteria because they destroy only the weaker strains, allowing the stronger ones to flourish.
Antibacterial soap may be useful for washing out cuts and scrapes or for people with impaired immune systems. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers that don’t require water can be a good substitute if running water isn’t available.
By taking the time to practice and teach proper hand washing (see “Hand washing 101”), you can help protect the health of your whole family.