THURSDAY, Dec. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Following mothers' advice
may have played a big role in averting a major health crisis.
Fears of the H1N1 flu virus reached a fever pitch last winter,
with public health officials fearing a widespread outbreak caused
by short supplies of the needed vaccine. But an epidemic was
averted, and some health experts believe that's because more people
than ever before regularly washed their hands.
Hand-washing in the United States has become a widespread habit,
according to the American Society for Microbiology and the American
Cleaning Institute. They released a study in September finding that
85 percent of people washed their hands in public restrooms in
2008, the highest levels observed since they began researching
hand-washing habits in 1996.
And though there's no direct scientific evidence that
hand-washing fended off H1N1 long enough for a vaccine to be
developed and distributed, the head of the American Public Health
Association said he believes that good hygiene very likely played a
prominent role in the virus never catching fire in the United
"Hand-washing is really the cornerstone of good sanitation and good hygiene," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the group's executive director. "Prior to having a vaccine, the things we had to rely on were covering up your nose and mouth when you sneeze, washing your hands as frequently as you could and avoiding hand-to-hand contact."
People's hands regularly pick up bacteria and viruses when they
come in contact with other surfaces, said Jeff Dimond, a spokesman
for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Someone else may have handled a doorknob, a keyboard, a cup, a handrail -- you don't know," Dimond said. "And the flu virus can live up to five hours on these surfaces. Your eye itches and you scratch your eye and bingo, that's how you get the virus into you."
The best way to rid hands of these infectious agents is by
washing them. However, hands have to be washed properly, something
many people fail to do, Benjamin and Dimond said.
First, you must use soap and warm water. Benjamin said that just
sprinkling water on your hands and then drying them does little to
rid them of viruses.
"Soap helps break up the grease, soil and dirt," he said. "Within the grease and the dirt, organisms can reside. You need to use soap and warm water to break that up."
Don't worry about using antibacterial soap for day-to-day
hand-washing. Just about any type of soap that creates lather will
work. "Antibacterial soaps are not necessarily any better unless
you're in a surgical or medical environment," Benjamin said.
Next, you want to scrub your hands together vigorously, being
sure to rub all the surfaces of your palms and fingers. The
friction is what dislodges viruses from the skin. "You want to
lather up all of your hands and you want to work all that lather
in," Dimond said.
Be sure to take your time when washing your hands, too. People
who rush through hand-washing might not completely scrub off all
the germs. The CDC recommends that people wash for at least 20
seconds, enough time to hum the "Happy Birthday" song to yourself
Once you've finished washing, be sure to thoroughly rinse your
hands. Rinsing washes away the dirt, grime and viruses along with
the soapy lather.
Finally, dry your hands. Wet hands pick up viruses from surfaces
more easily than dry hands. "If you've got wet hands, the minute
you touch something else, you're going to pick up something else,"
Benjamin said. Hands left wet or damp after hand-washing also can
become dry and cracked, providing viruses with another place to
latch onto and hide.
People should wash their hands at specific times during the day,
according to Benjamin and the CDC, including:
- Any time hands are visibly dirty.
- Before and after preparing or eating food.
- After using the toilet.
- After shaking a lot of hands at a meeting.
- After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
- Before and after treating a cut or scrape.
- After handling garbage or animal waste.
- Before and after tending to someone who's sick.
Hand sanitizer is often available now at gyms and workplaces.
Usually alcohol-based, sanitizers don't require soap and water. You
just squirt some onto your hands and rub them together until your
hands are dry.
Though effective, hand sanitizers still are not as good as plain
old soap and water, agreed Benjamin and Dimond.
"It's good as an alternative, when you don't have anything else, because it does kill the bacteria and viruses," Benjamin said. "But it doesn't wash off dirt and foreign matter. Soap and water is still the best."
The American Society for Microbiology has more on the importance
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