Wash Your Hands – Or Die!

by DavalosMcCormack on October 29, 2009

Ever wonder how doctors discovered that washing your hands was one of the best and simplest methods of protecting yourself and others from germs? You had to ask didn’t you. You might want to look away at this point.

It began in Vienna 150 years ago (doesn’t that sound like the start of a fairy tale!) when a doc with the wonderful name of Ignaz Semmelweiss noticed something odd in the maternity hospital where he was working. The death rate among the moms in one ward was so high (five times higher than in another ward in the same hospital) that many of the mothers were begging to be let go home. Then  Semmelweiss noticed that most of those dying were being cared for by medical students, who came up to that particular maternity ward from their anatomy class where they had been practicing their skills on corpses.

Clever chap that he was Semmelweiss figured out that the students were transmitting some nasty bugs from the dead bodies to the living ones, spreading infection and death. So, he instituted a policy of hand washing and before you know it the death rate had declined dramatically.

Great story eh! But you don’t have to be a terrified 170 year old Austrian mother-to-be to benefit from that finding. It can help you on any given day of the week. It’s still highly relevant today, in fact Scotland’s National Hand Hygiene is now in it’s second phase (do you really need more than one phase to tell you how to wash your hands? Phase one: wet your hands and lather up with soap. Then what. What’s next – oh, that’s phase two which we don’t implement until late 2009!)

Now, obviously there’s a lot of interest on hand washing because of the arrival of the H1N1 swine flu. With vaccine supplies limited and slow to get to the places and people who need and want them, health experts are advising people to take as many other precautions as they can to protect themselves against both the H1N1 flu and the regular seasonal flu. Hand washing is the number one thing they all recommend.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has a wonderful description of how you should wash your hands, just in case you forgot how to do it, and telling you that regular soap is just as good as the fancy and expensive antibacterial stuff.

Plus there is no shortage of sites telling you when to do it, in fact a quick google search of ‘germs washing hands’ produces more than half a million sites:

  • Before eating or touching food
  • After using the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose or coughing
  • After touching pets of other animals
  • After playing outside
  • Before and after visiting a sick relative or friend or after coming into contact with a sick person

So, pretty much all day every day. It’s no wonder some people just get tired of constantly washing and drying and washing and drying and washing and drying their hands and just stop. And that’s when the flu hits.

But, there is another way to protect yourself that doesn’t involve washing your hands after every single encounter or wearing rubber gloves and a protective mask all day long. You can just avoid touching your hands to your face, particularly your mouth, nose and eyes. Those are the vulnerable spots where the virus can just slide in and do it’s work.

Of course, it’s not always easy to remember that and avoid it – especially if you suddenly get an itchy nose or eye and you just put your hand up there without thinking – but if you do it as often as you can, and combine it with regular but not obsessive hand washing, then you should be pretty safe, not guaranteed to remain flu-free, but certainly at much lower risk.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tork UK November 9, 2009 at 3:37 am

A great article, I really like the quick history lesson at the start, very interesting!

You’ve covered quite a lot of ground with this article. This online tutorial could accompany this article really well, it clearly highlights the importance of washing and drying your hands properly in an effort to reduce the spread of bacteria (like you’ve mentoned). It’s a really quick interactive tutorial and it’s very informative, enjoy – http://bit.ly/6y63D

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