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Washing hands - a good investment in your health

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Abraham Eisenstein, M.D. | Wednesday February 17, 2010 5:01PM ET
Washing handsIn the mid-19th century Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a doctor at Vienna obstetric clinic, connected high mortality of women after giving birth with microbes. The cause was simple: dirty hands.


Let's see what happens when you come to work. You step out of your car, open the building door (1), you go inside and press the button in the elevator (2), you talk with your colleague and you touch hands (3), open the your office's doors (4), grab the morning papers (5), you grab your chair and pull it toward the desk (6), you use your phone (7) to call you secretary... You didn't even begin to work anything seriously and you already had 7 points of contact. In plain English, you touched 7 objects that carry microbe.

During the working day you will shake hands with many people, you will use bathroom, read newspapers, use computer mouse and keyboard, and all in all you will touch hundreds of things with your hands. Now, recall CSI and their forensic experts who say: "If we can prove transmission, we'll get the guy!" The word "transmission" is the key in CSI and it's the key in our case.

Let say that person who used the toilette before you didn't wash it's hands. That means he has microbes on the hand and after leaving the toilette he touches the door knob with his hands and leaves the microbes on the knob. You grasp the door knob to enter the toiletry and microbes stick to your hand. You will unconsciously touch your head, hair or mouth and microbes will end up on your skin or even worse in your mouth. At that moment you have a disease inside you. And the door knob is just one object that can carry microbes.

But the story doesn't end here. You leave the toillete, meet your colleague and shake hands with him, not knowing that you are the carrier of the viruses. Microbes "jump" to his hand and now he is contaminated too. With such social contacts microbes can contaminate hundreds, even thousands persons. The result: we have a dangerous epidemic. The disease can be simple diarrhea, but it can also be cholera, and cholera kills people.

A very unfortunate example is the terrible earthquake on Haiti which destroyed all infrastructure. That means that there's no clean running water and people can't wash their things and themselves. They touch everything with dirty hands. This is the ideal situation for microbes that spread fast and easily. Unfortunately, the most dangerous microbes will prevail and there is a real danger of disease like cholera or typhoid. That stands true for any natural disaster that destroys infrastructure, such as floods.

Hand washing is the most important way for prevention of infections. From cold and flu, to diarrhea and plague, simple and short hand washing can prevent all those horrors. We learn how to wash hands in the kindergarten, we learn a bit more in the school and after that we tend to forget how to do it and why.

When to wash hands? We should wash them after using the bathroom, changing a diapers, touching food that we'll cook, after you work with raw meat, and after taking garbage out. It would be good to wash our hands after using somebody else's computer mouse or keyboard, after touching objects like doors and stairs handles and in fact, after using any object which is in contact with other persons. You should wash your hands before before eating, and if your hands looks dirty.

How to do that? Wet your hands with warm running water and apply soap. There's no need to use antibacterial soap which kills bacteria because it can help microbes that are resistant to antibiotics. Rub hands together and remember to scrub all surfaces, and do that for at least 15 seconds. Then rinse you hand well under running water, so that all dirt goes away with water. Dry your hands with a paper towel and use that paper towel to turn off the faucet. That's it.

If you don't have water you may use alcohol-based hand sanitizers which are a good alternative to soap and water. If you use sanitizer, put enough of it to wet your hands completely and rub your hands for at least 25 seconds.

Remember that Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that hand washing prevents diseases - 150 years ago! So, wash your hand regularly and don't live in 19th century anymore.

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