CDC Says This Is One of the Most Important Steps to Avoid Illness

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Here's everything you need to know about hand-washing.

In early 19th-century Europe, most women gave birth at home. Yet for those who were unable to because they were poor or unwed, they delivered at medical facilities – where they faced a mortality rate of more than 25 percent. But in the 1840s at a Vienna clinic, an obstetrician named Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis came up with a novel idea. He put his theory into action and ordered the staff in his division to start washing their hands in chlorinated lime between patients and procedures. Mortality dropped to less than two percent among women in his care, and thus, the age of handwashing was born.

Nowadays we know that we're supposed to wash our hands – and its importance can’t be emphasized enough, even so, many of us lack in good hand sanitation habits. But consider this: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) likens it to a “do-it-yourself vaccine" and notes that washing your hands is one of the very best ways not to get sick.

In the United States, every year from the common cold alone there are 60 million lost days of school and 50 million lost days of work, resulting in a staggering $25 billion in lost productivity. Add to that the $8 billion spent on over-the-counter cough and cold medicine – just think of all that waste. And the abysmal misery that is getting sick? There’s no price you can put on that. Much of this could be avoided with some soap and water.

So in honor of Dr. Semmelweis and keeping ourselves as healthy as possible this cold and flu season – and because preventative medicine is the greenest drug of all – here's a deluge of handwashing facts to help drive the point home.

  • About 1.8 million children die before the age of 5 every year from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia. Handwashing with soap could protect about 1 out of every 3 of those with diarrhea sickness and 1 out of 5 with respiratory infections like pneumonia.
  • Handwashing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31 percent.
  • It reduces diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58 percent.
  • It reduces respiratory illnesses in the general population by 16 to 21 percent.
  • In one study of 6,000 students in 16 schools, using an alcohol gel hand sanitizer in the classroom reduced absenteeism due to infection by almost 20 percent.
  • A large percentage of foodborne disease outbreaks are spread by dirty hands.
  • While most people say that they wash their hands after going to the bathroom, research shows that in reality only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women washed their hands after using a public restroom.
  • A single gram of human feces can contain one trillion germs. If each of those germs equalled one second of time, they'd add up to 31,688 years.
  • Germs can stay alive on hands for up to three hours.
  • By some accounts, if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented.

HOW TO WASH YOUR HANDS. The CDC instructions look like this:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
  • Singing Happy Birthday start to finish, two times, while washing your hands indicates that you have spent enough time on the task.
  • The ingredients in soap aren’t that important in terms of germs, it’s the lather that matters. Lather removes the microorganisms and rinses them away so be sure to work up a sudsy one.
  • Soaps with antibacterial ingredients like Triclosan are bad. Don’t use them. It's that simple.
  • Water temperature does not affect the effectiveness of germ-killing, and in fact, hot water can irritate skin. Use what feels comfortable.
  • The fingernails and nearby areas play home to the most microorganisms.
  • Most people regularly forget to wash their thumbs; and especially the outer side of their thumbs. (Don’t say I never taught you anything.)

Aside from neglected thumbs, most people wash their non-dominant hand more than their dominant one. Which is a shame since the dominant one is the one more likely to touch more things and people, and then the nose and mouth and other parts.

And if all else fails: When soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol will reduce many (but not all) germs.

Update: This article was originally titled "Everything you need to know about the ‘DIY vaccine’ against illness." We have changed the title; we did not mean to imply that regular vaccinations are not important.