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Say 'Hands Off' to Cold and Flu Germs

Washing your hands is the best protection during winter season

SUNDAY, Jan. 20, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're concerned about staying healthy this cold and flu season, you need to be diligent about washing your hands at work.

A recent national phone survey of 1,013 adult Americans by the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) shows that 65 percent of maintenance and construction workers and 47 percent of office and customer-service workers wash their hands less than five times a day.

And about half the workers in both those groups don't wash their hands long enough. They're washing for no more than 10 seconds. Health experts say you need to wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 15 seconds.

Being conscientious about hand hygiene is essential in order to protect yourself not just from colds and flu, but also from a number of health threats.

"It's incredibly important, because the hands can be the vehicle of spread of a number of human illnesses. They're certainly capable of carrying and transmitting the virus of the common cold, influenza and other organisms that cause common afflictions in humans," says Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Your hands can also spread disease-causing organisms such as salmonella.

"The famous case of Typhoid Mary, who was a cook and never washed her hands and killed a number of people with typhoid fever, is very illustrative of this point," Levinson says.

So don't just wash your hands after you use the washroom. Wash them after shaking hands or touching hard surfaces, such as a doorknob, which may have been contaminated by someone else. You can pick up bacteria and viruses on your hands and then transmit them to your mouth, nose or eyes.

"If you eliminate the virus from the hands, then that type of transmission, that route of transmission, is interrupted," Levinson says.

But he adds, many people don't give much thought to washing their hands.

"Many people are rather casual about it because they don't want to bother ... and that's very good for the future health and happiness of all sorts of human pathogens," Levinson says.

And preventing the spread of viruses is so simple, Levinson stresses. It just involves warm water, plenty of soap, and a bit of time.

"At least 1 solid minute of good washing, if not 2 or 3 minutes," he says.

Make sure you cover your hands thoroughly in soap. Any kind of hard or soft soap is adequate. You don't need antibacterial soaps.

In fact, antibacterial soaps may, in the long run, cause more harm than good by contributing to development of bacteria strains that are resistant to antibiotics, Levinson says.

If you're already sick with a cold or flu but just have to be at work, do your co-workers a favor and keep your hands clean, advises Marsha Koopman, a nurse epidemiologist at the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

"It's especially important in the workplace, because we often are very conscientious about coughing and sneezing and using our hands as a shield. But then, if we don't go to wash our hands, everything that we touch -- the telephone, the pencils, the desk -- just becomes very contaminated with all the germs we put into our hands when we use them as a shield," Koopman says.

If you're chained to your desk and unable to go to the washroom to cleanse your hands, Koopmanvrecommends you use a waterless, alcohol hand-cleaning gel.

What To Do

Here are some suggestions on when to wash your hands when you're at work:

  • Each time you use the washroom;
  • Before and after staff meetings if food is served;
  • After scanning newspapers or magazines in your break room;
  • Before and after your lunch;
  • After using a workmate's keyboard or tools;
  • Before and after a meet-and-greet activity in your office;
  • When using shared office equipment such as phones and faxes.

You can find more information about the importance of hand washing and proper technique at the Mayo Clinic, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Interviews with Richard Levinson, M.D., D.P.A., associate executive director, American Public Health Association, Washington, D.C.; Marsha Koopman, R.N., M.H.A., C.I.C., nurse epidemiologist, University of California Davis Medical Center, Sacramento
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