Surgeons wash their hands methodically following an optimized procedure

Handwashing is a practice often taken for granted. You were probably frequently reminded to do this as a child. Even as an adult, you may still find signs or prompts in the workplace reminding you to wash your hands. However, we cannot afford to dismiss the critical role handwashing plays, especially during this pandemic. Washing your hands not only protects yourself, it also prevents the spread of respiratory and other infections like COVID-19. Learn how handwashing counters germs and how you can do it like a pro.

The History of Handwashing

In the mid-1800s, a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis made a unique discovery. He noticed that many women in the highly trained and well-equipped obstetric division of the Vienna Hospital were dying of infection. In contrast, fewer women were dying in the second obstetric division of the hospital, which was run entirely by midwives. The only difference was that male doctors and medical students delivered in the first division, while female midwives did so in the second. 

At this time, medicine was several decades behind what is known as the Germ Theory: the idea that microbes cause disease. This theory is nowadays overwhelmingly accepted by both experts and the general public. Back then, however, this was still an abstract idea. Nobody wore gloves during operations, and hygiene was not high up on the priority list.

Eventually, Ignaz Semmelweis concluded that infections came from dirty or unclean surfaces. He discovered this as the cause of the death of his friend and colleague. That person passed away from an infected scalpel used for autopsies beforehand. He also found those dirty particles originating from cadavers in students’ and attending physicians’ hands, who treated patients. It was this key discovery that prompted Semmelweis to mandate handwashing across departments. The incidence of fever and death immediately dropped after that. 

Taking notes from Semmelweis, we can now realize how the simple practice of handwashing can drastically benefit both our individual and public health. Moreover, during this pandemic we face, we can all do the same proven and effective measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 infection.

Why Wash Your Hands?

handwashing | Photo by Mélissa Jeanty on Unsplash | https://unsplash.com/s/photos/washing-hands?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText

Soap does not actually kill germs, but washing your hands creates bubbles that trap germs that you can easily rinse off. So, we already know that handwashing has numerous benefits. Here are just some of the ways washing your hands can improve your personal and community hygiene:

  • It prevents infections transmitted from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth (like COVID-19)
  • Washing your hands removes potentially disease-causing germs on your hands that could get into food and drinks
  • Reduces the number of people who get sick by diarrhea by 23-40%
  • Reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, by 16-21%
  • Protects 1 out of every 3 young children who get sick with diarrhea and 1 out of 5 young children with respiratory infections
  • Battles the rise of antibiotic resistance

Who knew such a simple act of hygiene could have so many benefits? You not only reduce your chances of getting sick but also improve the health and hygiene of those around you, especially children and those who have a weakened immune system (are immunocompromised).

How to Wash Your Hands Like a Pro

Handwashing is an easy and effective way to prevent spreading germs. Here are the five steps you can take to make your home, community, school, and workplace a cleaner space:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water and apply soap. Set the temperature to whatever is comfortable for you. However, slightly warmer water is preferred as it makes the oils on our hands easier to wash off. 
  2. Gently rub your palms together. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, your thumbs, fingertips, and under your nails.
  3. Continue doing this for at least 20 seconds. This is about the length of the “Happy birthday!” song repeated twice.
  4. Rinse your hands thoroughly.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry them.
Infographic by the World Health Organization on handwashing instructions
Infographic by the World Health Organization on how to handwash

Just like that, you now have clean hands! Don’t forget to remove any jewelry, as these are conducive places for germs to grow. If you don’t have soap or water, you may use an alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. While sanitizers do reduce the number of germs, they don’t get rid of all of them. They also might not be as effective if your hands are visibly dirty. Most importantly, it is best to wash your hands once you have access to soap and water. 

When Should You Wash Your Hands?

handwashing | Photo by Burst from Pexels | https://www.pexels.com/photo/blur-bubbles-cleaning-close-up-545021/?utm_content=attributionCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pexels

Throughout the day, you touch many things, most without you realizing: your phone, clothes, doorknobs, food, money, and even other people. For example, by touching a surface, microbes on it might stick to your hands, and then, when touching another, some “drop off.” So, without the practice of handwashing, our hands are an effective means of transportation for microbes. So, to keep yourself, your family, and community safe, here are crucial moments to wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before and after: eating; caring for someone who is sick; treating a wound
  • After: using the toilet; changing diapers or cleaning up a child; blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; touching an animal, their feed, or waste; touching garbage

This list is by no means exhaustive. But, this should cover most of the critical moments in your day where handwashing can break the chain of infection. It seems overwhelming, right? It might seem that way, at first. However, you can implement handwashing as a habit in your life.  Start by being mindful of the moments when microbes might either have opportunistically stuck to your hands or are ready to carry over to the next object or person you touch. Also, be aware of the small win you have achieved by washing your hands after using the toilet, so the respective germs don’t find your way to your phone, wallet, keyboard, or a loved one.

Handwashing and COVID-19

COVID-19 can be halted in its tracks by handwashing. Here are some essential tips on when to wash your hands, especially now during the pandemic:

  • Before and after: touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; touching your mask; entering and leaving a public space
  • Touching frequently touched surfaces/objects like door handles, tables, shopping carts, or electronic screens

While we are still in the middle of a pandemic, I hope it can be of some comfort to you, knowing that we can prevent the spread of COVID-19 through simple measures like washing hands. While masks and sanitizers are here to stay, possibly even after the pandemic ends, one effective habit we can take with us is to wash our hands. Now, you know how to do it like a pro. 
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the history of handwashing, the science behind it, and recommendations by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

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