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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Simple act a gift for yourself and others

Published: Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Health Department columnist

Maybe you've never thought about handwashing as a gift, but it could be the best present you could give yourself and others.

Gifts are traditional during this time of year. And even though we just enjoyed Thanksgiving and food and family, there's even more to celebrate this month.

But along with what we love comes what we don't love — the spread of colds, flu and other illnesses. Proper hand-washing — not a lick and a miss — is the tool for preventing the spread of germs. Your hands need to be clean — really clean.

I'm sure you remember as a child being told to wash your hands, and you may believe that the process is pretty easy. It is simple, but a review will help you have the cleanest hands in Henderson County.

1. Wash your hands frequently and always after using the restroom. All that we touch — people, doorknobs, phones, computer keyboards, light switches and on and on — contain the viruses and bacteria that accumulate on our hands. Then when we touch our eyes or mouth or rub our nose, we transfer these germs and infect ourselves.

2. When washing, use either warm or cold water. Apply liquid or solid soap and rub your entire hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Sing two choruses of “Happy Birthday” and you'll be good. Don't forget to include the backs of your hands, wrists, fingernails and in between your fingers.

3. Use a towel to dry your hands, and then use it to turn off the faucet. To further avoid germs, use the towel to open the door and turn off the light switch. If paper, throw the towel away.

You don't need antibacterial soap to do a good job. It is no more effective at killing germs than regular soap. It's the time you spend vigorously rubbing your hands with any soap that proves to be the key. In fact, using antibacterial soap might lead to bacteria that are resistant to the soap's antimicrobial agents. This could mean it will be harder to kill these germs in the future.

When soap and clean running water are not available, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection recommend using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (a cleanser that doesn't require water) that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60 and 95 percent are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Many times the effectiveness of a sanitizer is reduced because not enough is used or it's wiped off the hands before it has dried. To properly use a hand sanitizer:

1. Apply the product to the palm of one hand (read the label for the correct amount).

2. Rub your hands together.

3. Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. Norovirus, the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States, is a virus that is not killed with sanitizer. Handwashing with soap and water is more effective.

In addition to hand-washing, good hygiene etiquette is about how you protect others from your coughs and sneezes. Remember that influenza (flu) and other serious respiratory illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough (pertussis) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are spread by cough, sneezing or unclean hands.

Do you use a handkerchief? Having one handy to catch your sneezes and blow your nose may be what you've always done, but it isn't the best way to handle the spread of germs. That small piece of cloth that you use and stuff back in your pocket or purse is now a germ bank. A tissue is the better choice.

Whether you have a tissue or not, keep in mind these tips:

1. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

2. Put your used tissue in a waste basket.

3. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.

4. Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.

It's interesting how good hygiene etiquette seems to always come back around to washing your hands. This coming week is National Handwashing Awareness Week (Dec. 7–13), and it's a good reminder for all. Despite widespread knowledge of the importance of hand-washing, there is still room for improvement. One-third of Americans still don't wash their hands after using a public restroom. Does this make you think twice about shaking someone's hand?

I've heard hand-washing called the “do-it-yourself” vaccine. It doesn't take much time, but it offers great rewards by preventing illness and giving you a way to take your health into your own hands. And that means less time spent at your health care provider's office and more time spent at work or school or doing what you enjoy.

Decide today to give this gift to yourself and to everyone you come in contact with. It won't cost you anything.

Kim Horton is the information and communications specialist at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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