Man's hands holding a bar of soap getting wet.

Washing hands is good advice all the time

We didn’t just hear it once. We’ve heard it thousands of times.

Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands …

Following that advice from our parents and teachers not only helped get rid of dirt and grime, it helped eliminate germs. That lesson is being repeated, loudly, on a global scale as a reminder that good hand hygiene can help contain the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

But fighting off a pandemic isn’t the only reason to practice proper handwashing. Many other health-related issues can be avoided, or made less serious, if we all just spend extra time washing our hands.

Preventing common conditions

“I think everyday life and everyday problems supersede or overcome general stuff that we should do,” said Divyesh Morker, MD, a family practice physician for OSF HealthCare. “People come in for diabetes, people come in for high blood pressure, and infection prevention falls by the wayside sometimes.

“Handwashing is extremely important. We shouldn’t forget things that it can prevent.”

Dr. Morker provided several examples of common conditions that can be prevented by washing your hands:

  • Diarrhea
  • Eye infections
  • Skin infections
  • Upper respiratory infections

The numbers are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 million workdays are missed each year due to cold and flu-related illnesses. But proper handwashing can reduce the number of diarrhea cases by 23-40%; reduce respiratory illness, such as colds, by 16-21%, and reduce absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in school children by 29-57%.

Preventing serious conditions

And then there’s sepsis, a potentially fatal condition.

“Sepsis is really, on the spectrum of infections, the worst type of infection that you can get,” Dr. Morker said.

African-American woman's hand holding a bar of soap.Sepsis is an infection of the blood stream that can last a couple of days or several weeks. As your body fights the infection, the resulting chemical imbalances can permanently damage vital organs. Sometimes, the infection leads to septic shock, which drives down blood pressure and can result in death.

But sepsis is easily preventable.

“Let’s say if someone gets a wound and you have hands that you haven’t washed,” Dr. Morker said. “If you touch that wound, it has the potential of getting infected. If you let that infection fester, it will eventually turn into sepsis. And sepsis is, obviously, a very, very significant and severe infection of the body, which a simple thing like washing your hands can prevent.”

When to wash your hands

Despite all those childhood admonitions, a study by the University of Birmingham discovered that more than 50% of people in the world don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. The number in the United States is better – 23% – but still disconcerting.

Even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, there are some critical situations in which you should always wash your hands, without exception:

  • Before and after having a bowel movement
  • After changing a baby’s diaper
  • Before feeding a child
  • Before and after preparing food – especially when you handle raw meat, fish or poultry
  • Before eating

Other good times to wash your hands include after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, treating wounds, touching animals, dealing with garbage or touching commonly handled surfaces such as pens, elevators and door handles.

How to wash your hands

Woman in bathrobe washing hands.

Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% ethanol content is fine, especially when soap and water are not available, but it should never be used as a substitute for handwashing.

“That’s something everyone should ingrain into their minds,” Dr. Morker said.

At OSF HealthCare, our commitment to good hand hygiene is one of the many reasons you can trust us to keep you safe.

Good handwashing is a simple process:

  • Wet your hands with warm or cold running water and apply soap.
  • Work up a good lather, then scrub, cleaning the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • Wash for 20 seconds. If you don’t want to count, sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice.
  • Rinse thoroughly under running water.
  • If you are in a public place, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
  • Dry with a clean towel.

It’s all about continuing to keep you safe from infection as we move toward a “new normal.”

“It’s important for us as physicians and providers to have patients really focus on washing their hands and prevention, more than anything else,” Dr. Morker said.

Last Updated: December 21, 2021

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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