August 22, 2017


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Washing best to control germs, hands down

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2013 (1397 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Everybody loves a spooky story, and with Halloween approaching, here's one that will send chills down your spine.

Take a look at your hands. They look clean, right? Skin smooth? Nails buffed? But crawling on your skin -- breathing and eating and breeding -- are thousands of invisible, creatures. And they could mean you harm.

Research shows our hands are the prime source of gastrointestinal and respiratory infection at home and in the community. In fact, some researchers suggest as much as 80 per cent of common infections are spread by our hands.

That makes sense, particularly when you consider our hands are involved in pretty much everything we do. Every time you touch an elevator button, open a door, prepare a meal, wipe your child's face, or take out the garbage, you are coming into contact with a host of microbes.

Some are harmless. But others, like Salmonella spp, Campilobactor spp, and the influenza and respiratory syncytial viruses, are not. They can add to the collection of germs, bacteria and viruses hanging out on your skin. And they make it easier to catch a cold, influenza, gut troubles or worse, as our hands come into contact with our nose, mouth and eyes -- the three main ways germs enter the body.

The best way to guard against these trouble-making germs is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based sanitizer. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States maintains washing your hands is the most important thing you can do to reduce the spread of infectious disease.

The scary part is we didn't always know this.

It wasn't until the early 1800s that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis made an important observation that revolutionized our thinking about how infections were spread in hospitals and how to control them. He found there was a marked difference in perinatal mortality from child bed fever in a pair of obstetric clinics in Vienna. He formulated a theory: that there was an association between the lack of hand-cleaning and contact with patients, which led to increased mortality in certain patients.

Semmelweis instituted a regimen of hand-cleaning that markedly decreased the perinatal mortality. His observations were controversial and some challenged his concepts. Ultimately, time would prove Semmelweis correct.

But what's even more frightening is some 200 years after Semmelweis, many people still don't wash their hands properly or often enough.

A recent study by researchers at Michigan State University that involved observing the handwashing practices of 3,700 people at a public restroom underscores the point.

According to the study, only five per cent of those observed washed their hands in a way that would effectively kill off germs that could cause infections. Moreover, researchers noted, only 33 per cent of those observed used soap and 10 per cent did not wash at all.

Poor handwashing practices aren't going to do much to eliminate those nasty germs clinging onto your fingers. Studies show effective hand hygiene involves applying soap and water and rubbing your hands together for a minimum of 15 seconds to create lather. Some studies suggest this process should take between 30 seconds and a minute to be truly effective. And it is important to wash your hands with purpose -- work the soap in between your fingers, under your nails and up to your wrists before rinsing and drying your hands.

It's also important to wash your hands often, including any time before, during or after you come into contact with food, following a cough or a sneeze, after wiping your child's nose, changing diapers or coming in contact with feces or after handling your pet or their food.

By washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, you will significantly reduce your risk of catching a common cold, the flu, gastroenteritis or a food-related illness.

Hopefully by now, I have you spooked. I hope you don't trip in your haste to reach the nearest sink. Have a happy Halloween and good hygiene!

Dr. John Embil is medical director of infection prevention and control with the Winnipeg Health Region. His alter ego, Soapy, is a germ-fighting superhero who urges all to wash their hands in order to help prevent the spread of infection. Read more about Soapy and his adventures at


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