Handwashing – the Vanguard of Infection Control

ImageRow, row, row your boat gently down the stream… Sing it twice as you wash your hands, working up a good lather as you go, and you will be practicing one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness in all settings from your home and workplace to healthcare facilities.

It’s just common sense, really. Consider all the surfaces we come in contact with throughout the day – hand rails, door handles, ATM buttons and the like. What do all these things have in common? The human touch. We move about our day touching things everywhere we go.  

Imagine what it would be like to be a simple cold or flu germ.  Influenza viruses can survive on hard surfaces such as books or doorknobs between two and 8 hours. [1] Now, that may not seem like a very long time, but in “virus years” it can be an eternity.

Let’s say you are coming down with a cold and have decided to “gut it out” and go to work. With only a sore throat and a stuffy nose, you don’t realize that you are a veritable germ factory, and the first time you blow your nose and fail to wash your hands right after, you will soon be sharing your cold germs with everyone around you via everything you touch. Cold and flu germs can survive on some surfaces for up to 48 hours [2] and so the calling cards you leave behind when you handle things can be transferred by contact to anyone coming along behind you who touches it. This can include the telephone at the reception desk, the buttons on the copy machine or the handle of the coffee pot in the employee lounge. And as you run errands on the way home from work you are leaving cold germs along the way on the handle of the cart at the grocery store and the ballpoint pin you used at the bank teller’s window. 

Yes, germs are lurking around us all the time. They hitch a ride on us when we touch a surface on which they have been left. And if they make it to our eyes, nose or mouth, their most common entry point into the body, they will invade our body and perhaps make us sick. But there is a fast and easy way to defend ourselves against the spread of germs. Handwashing. 

According to the CDC (Centers of Disease Control) we should wash our hands before, during and after preparing food, before eating and before and after caring for someone who is sick or taking care of a cut or wound. Of course we all know to wash our hands after using the bathroom or changing a baby’s diaper. Hand washing is advised after taking out the trash or touching an animal, feeding it, or cleaning up after it. And of course it is especially important to wash our hands after blowing our nose, coughing or sneezing. [3] 

Now that we know when to wash our hands, let’s take a look at just how to do it. The CDC advises that we first wet our hands with warm or cold clean running water. Then apply soap. Next, rub the hands together to make a rich lather and scrub them well. Remember the backs of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails. This vigorous scrubbing should last at least 20 seconds. (Twice singing the song, Row, row, row your boat.) Then a good rinse under running water and a clean towel or air dry is the recommended finish. [3] 

As a side note, the use of waterless hand sanitizers is also addressed by the CDC. When soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol can reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations. Follow manufacturer’s recommendations when using them and know that they will not eliminate all types of germs. [3] 

Simple handwashing is truly the vanguard of infection control. No other infection control measure goes further in protecting us against the spread of germs. So row, row, row your boat gently to the closest sink and wash your hands. See you there!

Bo Ramsey is a CNA Instructor at Express Training Services, LLC at the Destin Training Center. ETS is home based in Gainesville, Florida and has several other training centers in Florida that offer fast-track instruction for certification in many healthcare occupations. For more information call 866-346-0660 or go to expresstrainingservices.com


[1] http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/preventing.htm

[2] http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/infectious-disease/AN01238

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/


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