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Combating Cold and Flu Season with Clean Hands

Hand Washing

Cold and flu season is here and getting a flu shot is the best way to take action and protect yourself and others. Practicing proper hand hygiene adds an extra layer of protection to prevent the spread of germs.

 “Our hands are probably the easiest way to transmit disease between us and they can transmit just about anything,” said Debra Miller, MHA, RN, CIC, director of Infection Control at Abington - Jefferson Health.

Germs or microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa, which are commonly transmitted by unwashed hands, are everywhere—but they aren’t all bad. In fact, a healthy body includes a variety of different germs. However, when a species of unwanted germs get into our bodies through our eyes, nose, mouth or broken skin, they can multiply and overpower the immune system, making us sick.

This includes minor illnesses like the common cold, as well as major infections like influenza, MRSA or staph, which can be deadly without proper treatment or for those with a compromised immune system. One of the best ways to prevent the spread of germs is through proper hand washing.

The Importance of Hand Washing

“It protects you, as well as the people you have contact with,” said Miller. “If there are germs in your system and you touch your nose, then a doorknob; that doorknob now has germs on it—even if there are no visible signs.”

Each Jefferson Health facility employs a hand hygiene program. Miller reports that Abington’s “secret shopper” program, which monitors hospital staff, boasts over 90 percent compliance, and that clean hands are part of the hospital’s culture.

“Healthcare workers go patient to patient, which is why there’s such a huge emphasis on cleanliness, both personally and at work,” said Miller.

The awareness program also stretches to patients and visitors, who are encouraged to wash thier hands regularly. Even if they are not seeing multiple patients, visitors can transmit germs among family members, friends and colleagues after they leave the hospital. This makes at-home hand hygiene just as important.

Hand Hygiene at Home

When it comes to clean hands at home, there are two options: traditional soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Soap and warm water is ideal for cleaning visibly soiled hands, but it can often be more difficult to do properly. First, use the soap to create a lather on the hands, paying attention to the nail beds, between the fingers and the backs of the hands. This lather collects the bacteria, wicking them away as the soap is rinsed. Singing the ABC’s or Happy Birthday twice is a good measure of how long this process should take.

Rinsing, the second step, is the most important.

“A lot of people cut this short,” said Miller. “Bacteria will still be in the soap, and they will just be redeposited on the hands if it isn’t rinsed properly.” She also recommends that faucets be turned off with a paper towel in-hand, as the germs you were washing off became attached to the surface on first touch.

Hand sanitizers are easier to use correctly and can be just as effective. It’s important to remember to make contact with all areas of the hands while using sanitizer in order to avoid cross-contamination.

“Done properly, both are equally effective,” said Miller. “Soap removes germs, while sanitizer kills them on contact.”

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