To some people recognizing a “National Hand Washing Awareness Week” this week may seem somewhat silly considering the fact that, well, it’s so simple.  Yet for an activity deemed so “simple” so many forget or neglect to do it on a consistent basis.

Hand washing in health care facilities is seen as one of the most important factors in stopping the spread of disease.  But how does it factor in our everyday lives?

“Hand washing is the most important think you can do to keep from getting sick,” said Steve Owens, Chief Nursing Officer at Southwestern Medical Center.  “Germs are spread from unclean hands to food, usually when the person who handles food doesn’t wash after using the bathroom, then from food to those who eat it. This is an almost totally preventable way of spreading disease.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), hand washing is important for many reasons including:

  • children and the elderly can have weaker immune systems than adults and can become sick quicker
  • about a third of E. coli outbreaks is caused by poor hand washing by food preparers
  • germs that cause disease live in meat, vegetables, and just about any food item
  • germs can spread from uncooked foods like hamburger to the hands, then spread to other foods, even salads

Some of the CDC’s statistics on appropriate hand washing, or lack thereof, can be alarming.  Here are statistics for some common activities where hand washing is deemed especially important:

  • a third of American adults don’t wash hands after using the bathroom
  • one in four adults don’t wash hands after changing diapers
  • more than half of adults do not wash hands after cleaning up after pets
  • only a third of adults wash hands after sneezing or coughing
  • less than one in five wash hands after touching money

According to Owens, everyone sees many instances each day that should prompt a good, thorough hand washing:

  • always wash hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, cleaning up after pets, taking out trash or handling money
  • wash hands when they are visibly soiled
  • wash hands before preparing food or eating
  • don’t cough or sneeze into your hands; use your sleeve or other part of clothing if needed
  • don’t put your fingers or hands in your eyes, nose our mouth
  • avoid touching people and surfaces with unclean hands

To thoroughly wash hands, Owens said, one should use clean, running warm or cold water (not hot) with soap.  Rub the hands together creating a lather. Make sure to scrub the backs of the hands, between the fingers, and under the nails, continuing to rub for at least 20 seconds.  Children can use a well-tried method of singing the “Happy Birthday Song” from beginning to end twice.  Rinse under running water and dry with a clean towel or air dry.

“If water and soap are not available, a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol can be used,” Owens said.  “If your hands are visibly dirty, hand sanitizers are not as effective.  If you do use sanitizer, just apply to the palm of the hand and rub together until the hands are dry.”

“With common sense and taking just a few seconds to properly wash hands, anyone can lead a healthier life for themselves and those around them,” Owens said.