Health Break | Published March 3, 2008 | Written by Marlene Stetson, RN, CIC, director of infection prevention and control, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Raise A Hand to Prevent Infectious Diseases

Conventional wisdom encourages children and adults to bundle up in the cold weather to prevent colds and other infections. Though you will be more comfortable, bundling up wont prevent the spread of infection. But, good hand washing will, it is so simple and so effective. Children and adults alike can significantly lower their chance of getting sick by simply washing or sanitizing their hands often.

Some viruses, like the ones that cause common colds or flu, spread very easily. More than 52 million suffer from common colds each year. Though many people believe they catch these infections through the air, most cold and flu viruses are actually picked up on the hands. Cold and flu viruses stay in the air for only a short time before falling to surfaces. Some viruses and bacteria can live up to 2 hours or more on surfaces such as doorknobs, phones and tables. When an invisibly, contaminated surface or object is touched and the viruses are moved to the nose, mouth or eyes, they may enter the body and cause an infection. Transfer of illness-causing germs can occur when rubbing your eyes, touching your nose or when eating.

If you clean your hands often and avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes, a link in the chain of infection is broken and you improve your chances of staying well this winter. Though most colds and flu occur during the fall and winter months, other viruses and bacteria can make you sick any time of the year and this same simple step will help protect you then too.

Hand hygiene is best accomplished by cleaning hands thoroughly with soap and water or by applying an antiseptic product, such as alcohol-based liquid, foam or gel. Both methods reduce the number of germs on your hands. If hands are soiled, a hand wash with soap and water is needed.

To perform a good hand wash, you must do more than run water over your hands. You must moisten hands and apply soap. Apply enough soap to produce a lather and vigorously rub all hand surfaces together for a minimum of 15 seconds. Pay particular attention to areas between the fingers and under and around fingernails. Rinse hands under running water and dry hands thoroughly using paper towels. It is best to use a dry paper towel to turn off the water faucet. Germs can pass through a wet paper towel, so dont use the ones used to dry hands.

Soap, friction and warm water are the most important parts of a good hand wash. Experts suggest using a mild, plain soap. In most cases, antibacterial soaps are not necessary since its the friction that removes the germs rather than the soap. Cold water or water that is too hot may shorten the time hands or washed because of discomfort so warm water is best. Water that is too hot may also chaff or chap hands, allowing germs to get into tiny cuts in the skin. Time is important too. Children are often encouraged to sing a favorite tune, such as Happy Birthday, to ensure hand washing for the appropriate amount of time.

Soap and water are not always available, prepare for times like these by keeping an antiseptic hand rub in the car, desk or purse. Use this at times when hands would normally be washed.

To use an antiseptic hand rub, dispense a palm-full of product into one hand. Spread thoroughly over hands and rub until dry.

Hand hygiene is a simple, effective method to prevent the spread of colds and other infections. Bundle up, because its cold. Wash your hands, because it will help keep you and those around you healthy.

Marlene Stetson, RN, is the infection prevention and control coordinator for Mount Nittany Medical Center. Mount Nittany Medical Center has initiated the hand hygiene awareness campaign called the Clean Team to remind patients, visitors, and the community about the importance of proper hand hygiene to maintain good health.