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Wash hands to avoid a cold or the flu

Image of Margo Kerrigan

Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

The cold and flu season is upon us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from sharing more than we want with others is to wash our hands.

The CDC estimates that 10-20 percent of Americans come down with the flu during each flu season, which typically lasts from November to March. Children are 2-3 times more likely than adults to contract the flu, and children frequently spread the virus to others. Although most people recover from flu, the CDC estimates that more than 100,000 people in the US are hospitalized and about 36,000 people die from the flu and its complications each year. Flu vaccine is available this year.

While not as deadly as the flu, the common cold afflicts even more Americans every year. According to the CDC, there are more than 52 million cases of the common cold each year among Americans under the age of 17 with children contract about 6-10 colds a year. Children more commonly catch colds, not because they are trying to show Santa how well they share, but because they are often in close contact with each other in daycare centers and schools. Some viruses and bacteria can live up to 2 hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks.

Remember when our mothers told us we need to wash our hands and we thought it was a nuisance to do so. Washing hands can help stop the spread of colds and the flu. However, many children and adults don't wash their hands as often or as well as they should. One study found that only 50% of older students washed their hands after using the bathroom. Adults weren't much better with only 83% were observed washing their hands after using a public restroom and the same number reporting they always wash their hands after using the bathroom in their home. Even smaller percentages of adults report that they always wash before handling or eating foods (77%), after petting a dog or cat (42%), after coughing or sneezing (32%), or after handling money (21%), all of which can spread viruses.

Along with spreading colds and flu, unwashed hands can also contribute to other illnesses. Failure to wash hands, or not washing them well enough, contributes to almost 50 percent of all food-borne illnesses. Hands, utensils and uncleaned countertops can also transfer germs from contaminated raw meat, eggs, and poultry to other foods. Campylobacter, the most common food-borne bacterium, affects an estimated 2.4 million people each year. Most of those who get sick are children under age 5 or young adults aged 15-29. Also, dog and cat saliva can contain any of more than 100 different germs that can make you sick.

Regular hand washing can help stop the spread of illness. Remember to wash hands:

  1. After using the bathroom
  2. Before eating or handling food
  3. After handling or cleaning up after animals
  4. After changing diapers
  5. After tending to someone who is sick
  6. After handling money (Boy, Ebenezer would have had to buy a lot of soap)
  7. After handling garbage
  8. Before and after treating a cut or wound
  9. After coughing or sneezing, or blowing your nose

Tips for washing hands correctly:

  1. Wet hands with warm running water prior to reaching for soap.
  2. Apply soap and rub hands together to make it lather. Do this away from running water, so the lather isn't washed away.
  3. Wash the front and back of hands, between fingers and under nails. Continue washing for 20 seconds or more. (One way to keep time: sing "Happy Birthday" twice or even Jingle Bells this time of the year).
  4. Rinse hands well under warm running water.
  5. Dry hands thoroughly with a clean towel, paper towel, or air dryer. If possible, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
  6. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers or gels or antibacterial wipes can be used if soap and water are not available. However, when hands are visibly soiled, they should be washed with soap and water.

Other tips for hand hygiene include:

  1. Avoid coughing or sneezing into your hands. Use a tissue or into your inner elbow.
  2. Avoid putting your fingers near or into your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  3. Encourage regularly scheduled hand-washing in children. A study of Detroit school children showed that scheduled hand washing, at least four times a day, reduced gastrointestinal illness and related absences by more than 50%.

For more information:
CDC - Handwashing: Clean Hands Saves Lives Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
Microbe World: Don't Get Caught Dirty Handed Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
Clean Hands Coalition Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
American Cleaning Institute Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
Henry The Hand Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
Clean Up! - A Kid's Guide to Handwashing Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
 

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