Living Columns & Blogs

Health break: Bundle up to stay warm, but wash hands to prevent infection

Conventional wisdom encourages us 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. What does work is good hand washing. Although simple, children and adults alike can significantly lower the chance of getting sick by simply washing or sanitizing their hands often.

Some viruses, like those that cause common colds or flu, spread easily. There are millions of cases of the common cold each year, with adults suffering from two to three per year on average, and children often suffering from more. Though many people believe they catch these infections through the air, most viruses are actually picked up on the hands.

Cold and flu 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 like doorknobs, phones and tables. When an invisibly contaminated surface or object is touched with our hands, the virus may then enter the body and cause an infection. Transfer of illness-causing germs can occur when rubbing your eyes, touching your nose or when eating.

If you clean your hands often and avoid touching your nose, mouth or eyes, a link in the chain of infection is broken and you improve your chances of staying healthy. Though most colds and flu occur this time of year, other viruses and bacteria can make you sick any time, and this same simple step will help protect you then, too.

Hand hygiene is best accomplished by cleaning hands thoroughly with soap and water or by applying an antiseptic product, like alcohol-based liquid, foam or gel. Both methods reduce the number of germs on your hands, decreasing the chance of infection. If hands are soiled, a hand wash with soap and water is needed.

To perform a good hand wash, you must do more than run water over your hands. Moisten hands and apply soap. Apply enough soap to produce lather, and vigorously rub all hand surfaces together for a minimum of 15 seconds. Remember the areas between the fingers and under and around fingernails. Rinse hands under running water, and dry hands thoroughly using paper towels. Use a dry paper towel to turn off the faucet.

Soap, friction and warm water are the most important parts of a good hand wash. Experts suggest using a mild, plain soap. In most cases, antibacterial soaps are not necessary since it’s the friction that removes the germs rather than the soap. Cold water or water that is too hot may shorten the time hands are washed because of discomfort, so warm water is best. Water that is too hot may also chafe or chap hands, allowing germs to get into tiny cuts in the skin. Time is important, too. Children are often encouraged to sing a favorite tune, such as “Happy Birthday,” to ensure hands are washed for the appropriate amount of time.

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. Spread thoroughly over your hands and rub until dry.

So bundle up because it’s cold, but wash your hands because it helps to keep you and those around you healthy.

Marlene Stetson, RN, CIC, is the infection prevention and control director for Mount Nittany Medical Center.