Fri | Jan 28, 2022

Handwashing: A weapon we will all use

Published:Saturday | April 6, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Our health, as they say, is literally in our own hands. Through proper handwashing we can guarantee ourselves the best defence against the spread of many illnesses. These include the common cold, diarrhoea and the more serious flu and, in some instances, meningitis.

Two readily available facts come to mind about handwashing: First, only one in four people wash their hands after doing an activity that is generally accepted requires handwashing for good hygiene. These include using the bathroom, coughing or sneezing into hands, changing diapers and wiping a runny nose. Of the one in four, only 30 per cent of them wash their hands properly, by using soap and water or a sanitising agent. This means that of any 100 people you meet only seven of them practice proper handwashing.

This becomes more concerning with the knowledge that up to 80 per cent of infectious diseases are transmitted by direct transfer from one person to another. The transmission may start with a touch, a handshake, a hug (and as a people we love to hug), opening a door or holding on to the rails of a bus or staircase.

Many objects in our daily lives carry germs. Most germs that cause infectious disease can live on hard surfaces for up to two days and on hands for up to five minutes.

As individuals, we pick up germs on our hands from touching people or things around us. With children around, it is even more important to prevent the spread of an illness from parent to child or from child to parent.

When children come into contact with germs, they can unknowingly become infected simply by rubbing their eyes, picking their nose, or putting a finger in the mouth, as they often do. And once our little ones are infected, it’s usually just a matter of time before the whole family and then the entire class come down with the same illness.Washing of both hands is the single best way to stop the spread of illness as it is impossible to avoid contact with germs.When hands are washed, they are cleaned and the germs that can cause illness are removed.

Children should be taught how to wash their hands, or have their hands washed if they are not old enough to do so.

Make handwashing fun

This can be made more fun by making it part of their routine and incorporating singing and games.

We all know how strong-willed children can be so they may not always listen (or remember to wash),but this is a message worth repeating.We can further lead by example by washing hands often.

Washing hands correctly involves using soap and water to lather up for about 20 seconds. Wash in between the fingers, under the nails and around the wrists. Rinse off the soap and dry well with a clean towel, preferably a disposable one or one that is changed often. If soap and water are not immediately available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser. After applying the gel or foam, rub hands together until dry. This is an easy way to clean hands as long as there is no obvious dirt or blood and is certainly better than not cleaning at all.

Hands should be washed before and after doing everyday activities that increase your risk of getting or spreading germs. These include preparing or eating food, feeding a child-including breastfeeding, attending to a sick person, changing a diaper, blowing your nose and using or helping a child to use the toilet. Other things which we don’t sometimes think about include flossing teeth, inserting or removing contact lenses, giving a child medicine, cleaning the house and feeding pets. Children should wash hands after coming back from playing outside at school and at home. Who knows what they may be carrying inside on their hands. When in doubt, wash before and after and wash again, if necessary.

About the flu

The number of flu cases is on the rise and causing alarm. Apart from the symptoms of runny nose, stuffiness and cough, the flu is usually more aggressive than a cold and may be associated with a fever, chills and malaise. It can affect other organs in the body such as the heart where it can cause inflammation and poor function.

Prevention is always better than cure. To help prevent its spread, covering your cough or sneeze with your sleeve, avoiding touching mucous membranes (eyes, nose and mouth), getting vaccinated and, of course, handwashing, are the mainstays.

Handwashing is a powerful weapon. The few seconds you spend doing this can save time, money and the stress of preventable illness.

Dr Tamra Tomlinson Morris is a consultant paediatrician and cardiologist at the Paediatric Place.