Handwashing an effective way to reduce risk of spreading infection

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HARTFORD — Your hands are in constant contact with your environment and they can pick up both bacteria and viruses along the way.

A single spot of fecal material the size of the point of a pen can have hundreds of billions of bacteria on it, whether that is yours, what was left on a doorknob by someone else, of that you picked up from the cutting board. When those hands touch your broken skin, eyes, nose, or mouth you can infect yourself or then you can touch a doorknob, a flusher on the toilet, or a table and leave behind microbes that can infect others. There have been several studies in the United States and around the world and the results are very clear. When people consistently wash their hands with soap, common respiratory illnesses go down by a 20-30 percent and the diarrhea risk is reduced by a 30-40 percent. In the United States they know that one of the top three ways an infectious disease spreads from person to person in a hospital is on the hands or stethoscopes of the doctors, nurses, and other caregivers. Given the number of studies conducted and the consistency of the results, evidence is irrefutable; you should wash your hands.

Many people in rural Bangladesh have no access to soap. If adults prepared food without washing their hands at all, 13 percent of their children had diarrhea over a month. This went down to 8 percent getting diarrhea if the adults’ hand touching the food was washed with water and 7 percent if both hands were washed with water. So rinsing your hands with water is valuable and if that is all you have, it is much better than nothing but it is clearly not as good as using soap and water where the risk went down to 4 percrnt.

Here is how the CDC suggests hands should be washed: thoroughly wet your hands with running water, then apply soap and rub it in for 20 seconds, that is two times through the “Happy Birthday song,” and then rinse. When you are done, air or towel dry your hands.

When you look at bacteria counts on the hands, antibacterial soaps with triclosan have been shown to remove more bacteria than regular soap but the data currently suggests that infection rates are not changed. That may be because most infections are due to viruses and antibacterial soaps don’t target viruses leaving them underpowered or they are not any more effective, the jury is still out. That is why the FDA says that they see no compelling difference between regular and antibacterial soap at this time. The triclosan that gets washed down the drain can end up in waterways and bodies of water and might disrupt algae’s photosynthesis. In addition, frog and rat studies suggest that high exposure to triclosan disrupt some body hormones or their functioning.

Hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol are much better than nothing at removing microbes but are not as good overall as washing your hands with soap and water. In addition, be aware that there are cases where children under 6 years old have drank a few squirts of hand sanitizer and had blood alcohol concentrations above the legal limit, slurred speech, vomiting, and other side effects. Over 16,000 calls were made to poison control centers about kids swallowing hand sanitizer so taking a product that smells like candy and looks like candy and sticking on their preschool or kindergarten backpack might not be the best approach.

 – Dr. Michael White from the UConn School of Pharmacy