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Handwashing: The Not-So-Secret Weapon in Disease Prevention
April 03, 2019

How many times a day do you tell your kids to wash their hands? How many times do they listen? If you’re getting them to comply five to ten times per day, then you’re doing a pretty darn good job. But it’s not only hand washing FREQUENCY that matters. It’s hand washing QUALITY that really prevents illness. 

Hands are germs’ favorite mode of transportation. Think about everything hands touch in a day. Think about everything a teenager’s hands touch in a day. Now think of everything a 5-year-old touches in a day. Germy hands, especially ones that belong to toddlers and preschoolers, are often touching toys, surfaces or even their friends, not to mention their own mouths, ears and eyes. In fact, the average person touches his or her face an average of 25 times per hour! Thinking of the probable germ trail in a day can make your head spin! So protecting and cleansing hands AND keeping them away from the facial area where most germs enter the body is key. “Hand washing is great and ideal,” explains Ramlah Vahanvaty, MD of St. Luke’s Zahra Pediatrics.  “But make sure your child is pairing that with a “no-face touching” policy too.”

Touching the face is generally how germs get INTO the body, but it’s also a way for germs to get OUT of the body too. So, if you have a cold or a flu and then you touch your face or nose, you are transferring those germs to your hands and then touching a doorknob, a desk, a computer or another person. If you really think about it, the times per hour you get germs on your hands is much higher than the times per hour that you wash your hands and that can lead to sickness.

“Encouraging proper hand washing and getting kids to be mindful of touching their faces is not to make them hypochondriacs or germaphobes,” says Dr. Vahanvaty. “Healthy bodies are definitely well-equipped with good immune systems to ward off most germs, but education about how germs enter the body and an awareness of good hand-washing techniques can go a long way to staying healthy.”

Besides the obvious times like after they’ve touched something dirty or if if their hands are visibly filthy, kids should always wash their hands after coming inside (including coming home from school), before and after they eat and after they use the bathroom.

So what’s the right way to do it?

Wet hands first. Add soap. (Mild soap is fine, it does not need to be antibacterial soap.) Kids should soap up their hands and rub them together while singing their ABCs one time through, which equates to about 20 seconds (fun fact, most people only wash their hands for 6 seconds - that’s adults!), then rinse with warm water and dry thoroughly. “I’ve seen kids put soap on their hands and then immediately run their hands under water. That just rinses the soap away, but they claim they’re ‘washing their hands.’” says Dr. Vahanvaty. “The soap has to work into the hands for about the length of time it takes to sing the ABC song to really work.” Dr. Vahanvaty also reminds parents that if they have the choice, getting kids to a sink to wash hands with soap and water is preferable. But if there is no where else to go, instant hand sanitizer is a good option.

Remember, about 80 percent of common infections are transmitted through hands - imagine how nice it would be to have 80 percent fewer sick days?