Wash Your Hands (A Lot); Get Sick Less

By Kathryn Matthews

On a recent Friday evening at peak commuter rush hour, I boarded the Metro North train at Grand Central, sinking into my seat with seconds to spare.  I hadn’t noticed my seatmate.  But she soon got my attention.

She began sniffling, rubbed her nose, sniffled some more and rubbed again, all the while, answering emails on her iPhone. This mucous-snorting cacophony continued, unabated, another 20 minutes.

“Blow your nose!!” I begged telepathically.  She remained oblivious to my silent pleas, absentmindedly touching her seat, her bag and her hair. Unable to contain myself any longer, I pointedly offered her several tissues.

“No thanks!  I have some,” the woman said, sniffling.

She was a harsh reminder that flu and cold season has arrived.

Leaning into the aisle to escape her snuffles, I shot out of my seat as soon as another was available.

My husband has often accused me of being a germ-a-phobic Howard Hughes.

Wash well, PLEASE!

Sure, I’m a compulsive hand washer. But that’s a good thing, especially this time of year.  Regularly washing your hands is one of the most effective means of cold and flu prevention.

Unfortunately, even people who should know better—like healthcare workers—don’t always practice safe hand (washing) hygiene.  IMO: a horrifying fact that should be incentive enough to stay healthy—and out of hospitals!

Two studies, published in the August issue of American Journal of Infection Control, link greater knowledge about hand hygiene with a reduced risk of transmitting infection.

In one study, 71 health care workers—comprised of nurses, infection preventionists and hospital environmental services managers—participated in a national survey that tested their hand hygiene knowledge.  They were given 16 real-life scenarios to analyze, then asked to assess the perceived risk of infection based on their knowledge of hygiene infection and their perceived role in preventing the spread of infection.

What researchers found: across all knowledge levels, the health care workers believed that surfaces were safer to touch than a patient’s skin.  Yet, research  has proven that when you touch one contaminated surface—including clothing, towels, bedding, even a stethoscope–you can spread bacteria up to the next seven (7!) surfaces you touch.

Like hospitals, schools can be petrie dishes: kids are notorious for catching bugs—and passing them on.  But in a 2008 study, Danish researchers found that hand washing programs effectively reduced school absenteeism.  A three-month hand washing intervention targeted pupils, aged 5 to 14, at two elementary schools in Denmark: each student received one lesson in hand disinfection theory and practice.  They were also directed to disinfect their hands with ethanol gel 3x during the school day.

The result?  Two significant improvements, including a:

–66% decrease in students absent 4+ days

–20% increase in students with 0 absences

It pays to wash your hands every time you touch a surface—whether it’s your tie,  a laptop keyboard, a smart phone, or a treadmill, to name a few—all of which can carry bacteria.

Sorry, hub…I’m with Howard on this one!

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