Public Health is…Good Hand Hygiene

It was 1846 in Vienna when a man named Ignaz Semmelweis made the connection that doctors who were not washing their hands between performing autopsies and delivering babies were spreading puerperal fever to those mothers giving birth.  As this discovery was well before the understanding of germs, he blamed cadaverous particles for causing these infections. Semmelweis took matters into his own hands and made physicians use a nailbrush and chlorine to wash their hands between patients. This action alone reduced the rate of death from puerperal fever from 20% to 1% in his wards.

A discovery worthy of honor and reward, right?

Semmelweis was fired because he couldn’t provide a scientific basis for his theory, and his fellow physicians were offended at the idea that they needed to wash their hands regularly.  Sadly, Semmelweis was admitted into an asylum where he died before his theories about the importance of hand hygiene gained widespread acceptance.

BUT we now know better, right? We know that proper handwashing is hugely important in preventing the spread of disease from person to person. We certainly have more proof and data about the value of keeping our hands clean, and the tools to do it easily. Therefore, everyone regularly cleans his or her hands, right? Unfortunately, it is well recognized that Americans do not wash their hands as well or as often as they should.

Here are some tips to make sure your handwashing is as effective as possible:

  • Make sure to wash the back of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. How long is 20 seconds? Try singing happy birthday two times through.
  • Dry your hands completely, as damp hands transmit bacteria more easily. Despite the potential environmental impact, paper towels have been shown to more thoroughly dry hands compared to air dryers.
  • If the skin on your hands starts to feel uncomfortably dry after many washes in a day, use hand lotion to rehydrate.  Skin that becomes irritated and broken due to dryness can have an increased bacterial load – the opposite intention of handwashing!

What about gels?

When soap and water are not available, what is a good alternative?

Hand sanitizing gels are shown to be effective at killing organisms on the surface of the skin.  However, if your hands are visibly dirty, then soap and water is necessary to achieve good hand hygiene. If you do use sanitizing gels:

  • Keep rubbing the applied product between your hands until they are dry.
  • Always use gels with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Remember that these gels should not replace traditional handwashing, and that every few cleanings  should be done with soap and water.

To remind your friends and family (and not to mention yourself) to keep those hands clean, take advantage of these resources from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

E-cards on handwashing:

Video about handwashing:

Happy Handwashing!!!

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