Conventional wisdom encourages children and adults to bundle up in the cold weather to prevent colds and other infections. Though you will be more comfortable, bundling up does not prevent the spread of infection. But what does work is good hand-washing. While it may seem too simple, it is the most effective way to protect yourself against communicable illness.
Some viruses, like the ones that cause common colds or flu, spread very easily. Right now, in fact, the flu and other contagious illnesses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and gastrointestinal viruses, are widespread in our community. Children and adults alike can significantly lower their chance of getting sick by simply washing or sanitizing their hands often.
Many believe that viruses are spread through the air, but it is actually through contact with contaminated surfaces that most infections are spread. In general, viruses stay in the air for only a short time before falling to surfaces. Some viruses and bacteria can live up to two hours or more on surfaces such as doorknobs, phones and tables. When an invisibly contaminated surface or object is touched with our hands, the viruses are easily moved to the nose, mouth or eyes. The viruses may then enter the body and cause an infection.
Hand hygiene is best accomplished by cleaning hands thoroughly with soap and water or by applying an antiseptic product, such as alcohol-based liquid, foam or gel. Both methods reduce the number of germs on your hands, thus, decreasing the chance of infection. If hands are soiled, a hand wash with soap and water is needed.
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To perform a good hand wash, you must do more than run water over your hands. You must moisten hands and apply soap. Apply enough soap to produce lather and vigorously rub all hand surfaces together for a minimum of 15 seconds. Pay particular attention to areas between the fingers and under and around fingernails. Rinse hands under running water and dry hands thoroughly using paper towels. It is best to use a dry paper towel to turn off the water faucet. Germs can pass through a wet paper towel, so don’t use those to dry hands.
Soap and water are not always available, but it’s important to prepare for times like these by keeping an antiseptic hand rub in your car, desk or purse. Use this at times when hands would normally be washed. Spread thoroughly over your hands and rub until dry.
Though hand hygiene is a simple, effective method to prevent the spread of contagious illnesses and other infections, during this time of widespread illness in our community, the Mount Nittany Medical Center is asking people to refrain from visiting the hospital if they are experiencing any signs or symptoms of a contagious illness. Give the loved one a call instead and plan to do something special for them after their discharge. If you must visit, clean your hands before and after your visit and cover your cough with a tissue or a respiratory mask that may be obtained from one of our kiosks located at each entrance.
Marlene Stetson is the director of infection prevention and control at Mount Nittany Medical Center.