Wash your hands often, because clean hands keep you from getting sick (and spreading germs!)

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Now is a good time to be reminded about how important it is to do something very simple for your health: Wash your hands, and wash them often. It’s one of the best things you can do (besides getting immunized) to avoid getting sick or spreading germs to others.

Let’s start with the basics. When should you wash your hands?

After using the toilet is No. 1, but in general it’s a good idea to wash your hands when you get home or are preparing food or are ready to eat. You should also wash up before and after caring for someone who is sick, after changing a diaper, after holding or petting an animal, and after blowing your nose or coughing or sneezing into your hands.

Is there a right way to wash your hands?

There are essentially five steps to washing your hands the right way: Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse and Dry. You should use soap and water and rub your hands together to lather the soap. Be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails each time you wash. You need to vigorously rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds, which also is the length of the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end, twice. Hum it to yourself and then rinse your hands under running water and dry them with a clean towel or allow them to air dry.

What if soap and water isn’t available?

Then you should use an alcohol-based sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol in it, or hand wipes. Keep in mind that sanitizers will reduce the number of germs on your hands, but they don’t get rid of ALL the germs. Rub it all over your hands and fingers until they are dry. Hand sanitizers are not as effective when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

Why is the alcohol important in hand sanitizer?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that hand sanitizers that contain 60-95 percent alcohol kill more germs than hand sanitizers with lower concentrations of alcohol. Non-alcohol-based sanitizers may not work as well for all certain kinds of germs. They also could cause germs to become resistant to the sanitizing agent, and they could merely reduce the number of germs rather than killing them outright.

Does hand-washing really protect us from colds and flu?

It certainly helps. The very best way to prevent flu is to get the yearly flu vaccine. In addition to cold and flu viruses, hand washing also helps protect against the spread of germs that cause meningitis, some kinds of viral hepatitis, and infectious diarrhea. Think about all the things you touched today that others also touched. You probably picked up some germs along the way that could make you sick. Every time you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, germs can go from your hands into your body. Rubbing your nose or eyes after you have a virus on your hands is one of the most common ways people get sick with a cold.

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