National Handwashing Awareness Week runs Dec. 5-11, in observance of the importance of proper hand hygiene technique. Handwashing is a fundamental way to prevent getting sick and reduce the spread of germs and viruses, such as respiratory, diarrheal, foodborne and travel related illnesses.
So how does handwashing prevent the spread? Some viruses have a protective fatty coating that surround it, such as COVID-19. By using soap and lathering for 20 seconds, germs and chemicals are physically removed. According to the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC), “soap lather forms pockets that trap germs, dirt, and chemicals and removes them” while rinsing. Soap and water offer the best deterrence but when this is not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
The most common respiratory infections (flu, colds, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, coronavirus, etc.) are caused by viral pathogens and can be reduced by 16 percent when practicing handwashing. Similarly, foodborne illnesses (Salmonella, Listeria, Norovirus, etc.) can be transmitted through handling raw meats, like chicken, and then preparing other foods without having properly washed hands. Other ways germs can spread is by touching your mask; touching contaminated surfaces that are frequented by others such as doorknobs, tables, gas pumps, shopping carts; touching your eyes, mouth and nose; and coughing, sneezing and blowing your nose then touching people’s hands and/or objects.
What can we do during Handwashing Awareness Week and after? According to Extension Program Specialist Julie Tijerina, “By remembering key times to handwash, we can reduce getting sick or spreading the germs.” Some of these key times, according to the CDC, include:
- Before, during and after preparing food
- Before and after eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick with vomiting and diarrhea
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning a person after they have used the bathroom
- After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
- After touching garbage
Tijerina offers CDC’s five steps to correct handwashing:
1. With clean running water, wet hands and apply soap
2. By rubbing hands together, create a lather focusing under nails and between fingers
3. Scrub for 20 seconds
4. Rinse with clean running water
5. Using a clean towel to dry hands
Liz Buckner is a county extension agent for Rusk County.