There’s a simple step you can take to help defend yourself, your family, and your community from epidemics and contagious diseases: wash your hands. Hand washing can save hundreds of lives every year, and it takes less than a minute. Proper hand washing is the simplest and most effective way to prevent the spread of infection, but most children and even many adults don’t wash their hands, or don’t do it correctly. Filthy hands spread diseases including bronchitis, common cold, Coxsackievirus, most types of infectious diarrhea, flu and flu-like diseases, hepatitis A, meningitis, pharyngitis, pinkeye, pneumonia, strep, tonsillitis, and tuberculosis.
According to the American Public Health Association, you should wash your hands before working with food, treating a cut, or being in contact with a sick person; and after coming in from outside, using the bathroom, playing with pets, riding public transportation, playing with pets, coughing or sneezing, or blowing your nose. However, it’s even better to sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow, rather than your hand. Any washing is better than none, but proper hand washing technique—there’s a technique for this, as for anything—is important to get the best results:
- Use warm, but not scaldingly hot, water.
- Use soap. It doesn’t have to be antibacterial soap, and in fact probably shouldn’t be.
- Use enough soap. You should have visible lather all over your hands—including between your fingers—and up to your wrists.
- Wash for at least 20 seconds. Longer than 20 seconds confers little additional benefit, but it shouldn’t be shorter.
- Rinse thoroughly. getting all the soap off.
- Dry completely with a clean towel. A paper towel is good, because it’s disposable, but it may be kind of rough.
If you have kids, teach them to wash their hands too. Kids are more prone to getting dirty than adults, and getting them into the habit early will serve them in good stead for the rest of their lives. Very young children may need to be supervised to make sure they’re thorough enough and the water isn’t too hot.