By Dr Umberto Russo MBBS, FRACGP
As winter approaches the community braces for an onset of infectious illnesses – coughs, colds, flu, gastro, skin complaints and eye infections. But as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure… and the number one way to prevent getting sick this winter is the simple act of washing your hands.
Many of the germs that spread illness are carried by our hands. Germs get onto our hands when we touch objects which have germs on them.
Germs from people’s unwashed hands end up everywhere – on handrails, door handles, keyboards, table tops, ATMs, children’s toys, phones, kitchen surfaces – and from there they are transferred onto our hands! And as we know, our hands constantly touch our eyes, nose and mouth, often without us even realising it. Germs get into our body this way – and make us sick.
It may sound obvious and mundane, but the very best way to prevent the spread of illness is to wash your hands with soap and water, often and well.
Wash your hands…
1. After going to the toilet
Why? Faeces (poo) from humans and animals carry germs - a single gram of poo can carry a trillion germs. When these germs get onto hands and are not washed off, they can be passed to another person, either directly from soiled hands or indirectly by way of objects, surfaces or water soiled with faeces. These germs can cause highly contagious illnesses like food poisoning or gastroenteritis.
2. Before eating
Why? Washing hands before meals is an important way to prevent germs spreading, especially for young children who tend to eat with their hands.
3. After touching animals
Why? Pets such as dogs, cats, reptiles, rodents and birds carry germs that can cause intestinal diseases. Pet food and pet treats can also be contaminated with germs.
4. After sneezing and coughing
Why? If you are sick with a cold or flu, the cold or flu virus will be released every time your cough, sneeze or blow your nose. Keeping your hands clean will ensure you don’t spread germs to others.
5. After changing nappies
Why? After changing nappies you should always wash your hands - and your baby’s hands too just in case. Also after helping an older child who has used the toilet, you should both wash your hands. Training a child about hand hygiene is an important life skill. (See #1 above.)
6. Before, during and after preparing food
Why? Your hands can spread bacteria around the kitchen and onto food. Germs from our hands can multiply in certain foods and drinks and make people sick. Raw foods such as meat, chicken, fish and raw vegetables contain harmful bacteria that would normally be killed when cooked. Take care to wash your hands after handling raw foods to avoid spreading germs to ready-to-eat foods such as salads, bread or fruit.
7. Before and after caring for a sick person
Prevent the spread of infection by washing your hands before and after treating wounds, giving medicine, or caring for a sick or injured person.
By following this simple advice, you can help protect you, your family and others from getting sick.
Download your free handwashing poster and spread the word about not spreading germs!
Dr Umberto Russo MBBS (Adelaide) FRACGP is Chief Medical Officer at 13SICK, National Home Doctor Service. He has more than 25 years' experience both as a General Practitioner and a visiting home doctor, with a special interest in urgent medical care.
Hand Hygiene Australia
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention