As the cold and flu season approaches, it is important that people remember to wash their hands often. This year it may be especially important as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicts 5-20 percent of the population will get the flu this year, with more than 200,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths (www.cdc.gov/flu).
Margaret Bruya, associate dean for academic health services and professor and co-founder of People’s Clinic at the Washington State University Intercollegiate College of Nursing, said that the flu tends to start with cold-like symptoms, such as a sore throat and runny nose, fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, severe headache and weakness.
The best safeguard against the flu is a flu shot, but hand washing can also help prevent people from becoming infected. Bruya advises using an antibacterial liquid soap and scrubbing hands for at least 20 seconds.
Many people think viruses such as the cold or influenza are spread through airborne transmission, such as sneezing. However, more commonly, the germs that cause illnesses are spread by hands. When harmful bacteria are on the hands, which come into contact with mouths, noses and eyes, the bacteria can spread to these mucous membranes, allowing for the cold and flu viruses to infect people.
Here are a few tips on when and how to wash your hands to ensure a more healthy cold and flu season.
Washing hands both before and after handling food is important in preventing the spread of disease. When cooking with raw food, wipe down all cooking surfaces and instruments used in the food preparation process. Afterward, seal all raw food in individual containers to limit the spread of bacteria. Always wash hands before eating and before touching serving and eating utensils.
According to a recent study from the American Society for Microbiology (www.washup.org) and the Soap and Detergent Association (www.cleaning101.com), 90 percent of women and 75 percent of men wash their hands after using a public restroom. That means that the 10-25 percent of people who do not wash their hands are spreading the bacteria that cause illness.
Always wash hands after using a public restroom, and be sure to use warm water, plenty of soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Remove jewelry to cleanse bacteria which may lie beneath rings. To further minimize the spread of germs, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and to open the door. Toss the used paper towel in a waste basket after leaving the restroom.
One source of bacteria and germs that many people forget is pets. According to a study by the ASM and SDA, only 42 percent of people wash their hands after petting or handling animals. Wash hands after cleaning up after pets, such as after changing a cat’s litter box or after clean-up while walking the dog. Warm water and an antibacterial soap is recommended. Scrub under fingernails and jewelry, and dry with a clean towel.
Use disposable towelettes or antibacterial gel to keep hands clean when water is not accessible. Rinsing hands with only water is not enough to kill bacteria or prevent it from spreading.
For more information about the College of Nursing, visit its Web site at www.nursing.wsu.edu.