NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County

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The First Line of Defense

The First Line of Defense

          As most of the US continues to set record number of flu cases, it is good to remember that the first line of defense against the spread of many illnesses, from the common cold to more serious illnesses such as meningitis, bronchiolitis, influenza, hepatitis A, and most types of infectious diarrhea is the simple task of hand washing.

                   Our hands carry out hundreds of tasks in a given day. From washing faces, handling food and taking out garbage to greeting strangers, shaking hands and holding doors for others, hands work hard. Unfortunately, hands also carry an incredible number of germs, diseases and infections.  One square centimeter of skin can holds up to 1,500 bacteria.

                   Germs find their way to hands from a multitude of locations. Germs love to convene on toys, doorknobs, cellphones, handbags/purses, shopping carts, remote controls, computer keyboards and light switches.  Germs do little damage on our hands.  It is when we touch our hands to nose, eyes and/or mouth that we have germs moving into us where they wreak havoc with the illnesses mentioned above. Our hands are a way for germs to move about.

          Here are some of the common forms of germ distribution:

          - Food. Anytime you handle food without washing hands or wearing protective gloves, germs will jump from surface to surface, sometimes resulting in food-borne illnesses.
          - Contact with someone who is sick. Even if there aren't visible symptoms, if you're touching someone who is sick, such as a child with a fever or diarrhea, those germs will travel with you until you wash your hands.
          - Contact with animals. If you have pets, you're usually bound to have lots of contact with them during the course of the day. All those puppy kisses and cat baths, however, will leave you coated with a smattering of animal germs that can also cause illnesses in humans.

          All of which leads to the conclusion of how important hand washing is.  So when should you wash your hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage
  •                    And not only is it important to wash hands on a regular basis, it is vital to practice proper technique. A quick rinse under a cold tap does nothing but get the germs wet. In order to kill these invisible passengers, you'll need to follow these steps for proper hand washing:

              -Wet your hands with very warm water (as warm as you can stand it)
              -Apply bar or liquid soap and lather well.
              - Rub and scrub hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds.  Hint: hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
              - Make sure to cleanse all surfaces, including wrists, backs of hands, in between fingers and under fingernails
              -Thoroughly rinse to remove all soap
              - Dry with clean dry towel or paper towel

              If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.

              Don't underestimate the power of hand washing! The few seconds you spend at the sink could save you trips to the doctor's office.

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