Monday, November 04, 2013


Handwashing can be the best medicine

As I write this from my cramped seat on an airplane, en route to Utah to visit our son, we are bombarded with the sounds of coughing, sneezing, throat-clearing and nose-blowing of other passengers. It's hard to ignore.

While I have my little bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer at the ready, I doubt if many other passengers do, unless they are healthcare workers, too.

I didn't feel any better when I started on the reading material I had brought.  Writing for Healthline, author Lisa Collier Cool cites a rather disturbing  finding.  Ninety-one percent of Americans say they wash their hands after using a public toilet, but an observational study conducted at six U.S. airports found that only 26% of men and 17% of women actually did.  Now that's a dirty little report I wish I hadn't read.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study survey found that 40 million Americans a year fall prey to illnesses spread by hands, which can harbor up to 500,000 bacteria per square centimeter. Ugh. The bacteria numbers sound even worse if measured per inch.

The bottom line is that the easiest, cheapest way to stay healthy is simply to wash hands with soap and water.  Experts advise us to wash hands before and after preparing food, before eating, after using the toilet or changing diapers, after coughing or sneezing, and after touching garbage.  I would add after a session using a computer keyboard, too.  How often do we cleanse our keyboards?

While soap and water is best, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are second best. They don't eliminate every kind of bacteria, but they will help until soap and running water become available.

The recommended procedure for effective hand washing is wet hands, applying soap, scrub between fingers, and well up the wrists for 30 seconds. Rinse under running water, dry on a paper towel, and turn off the faucet with the towel. 

It is suggested that kids sing "Happy Birthday" twice, which should equal 30 seconds. Another thing we noticed is that kids sneezed into their elbows as they are taught to nowadays as opposed to older adults, who are conditioned to cough or sneeze into their hands.  That now-obsolete method of containing germs was polite, but unsanitary. It would have been OK if immediately followed by effective hand washing.

Exposure to a little dirt and normal everyday surface bacteria in our environment is essential for our bodies to build up a good immune system, but let's wait until after flu season to get our quota. 

Alice Facente is a community education nurse for the Backus Health System. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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