Handwashing Is Key To Preventing Colds

Posted: October 13, 2012

It’s the start of cold and flu season so cold viruses are lurking within your reach...

Cold viruses are transmitted via hand contact. When you shake hands with an infected person or touch a door knob after someone with a cold virus has touched it, and then touch your nose, eyes or mouth, you can become infected.

     According to John Messmer of the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, hand washing has been shown to reduce significantly the chance of spreading cold viruses. He reports that studies in elementary schools have shown a 50-percent reduction in absenteeism with the introduction of a comprehensive hand-washing program. 

     There’s a proper method for effective hand washing. Dampen hands with warm water, lather with soap and rub vigorously for 20 seconds – about the time it takes to since Happy Birthday twice. Rinse in a downward motion and dry with a disposable paper towel. Remember that soap is key to proper handwashing since it keeps the germs and dirt suspended in water so they can be rinsed off. 

     It’s important to wash hands:

•         before preparing food
•         after handling raw meat, poultry and eggs
•         after using the restroom
•         after blowing your nose, or coughing or sneezing into your hands
•         after changing a diaper
•         after caring for a sick person
•         after handling garbage
•         after touching pets
•         after hands have become visibly dirty

     Alcohol-based sanitizers are a good alternative to handwashing if a sink, soap and warm water are not available. According to Dr. Messmer, research has shown significant reductions in illness in schools where hand sanitizers have been used. However, sanitizers will not remove visible dirt and should not be used in place of proper handwashing if sinks, soap and towels are handy.

     There are a couple of things you can do to prevent the spread of cold viruses. If you sneeze or cough, do so into the bend of your elbow rather than on your hands. Avoid shaking hands especially if you have a cold. People will not mind, in fact they will be grateful, if you explain you would rather not shake hands so as not to spread your cold virus.  Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth until you’ve had a chance to wash your hands. Lastly, if you are sick with a cold and are not feeling well, stay home. Don’t spread your germs to others.

     Of course, getting adequate rest, exercise and eating properly are important to staying healthy, but good handwashing is also a big part of staying healthy during winter and throughout the year.

Karen Thomas is a family and consumer sciences educator for Penn State Extension in Lackawanna County.