How to avoid illness by washing your hands

Posted on March 16, 2017 by Helen Field

Washing your hands - Healthy You blogSimple but effective
It's only been 170 years since we really started to realise the importance of avoiding infection by washing our hands. It's such a simple thing, yet how many people actually do it? A survey of 100,000 people revealed that 62% of men don't wash their hands after going to the toilet, compared to 40% of women. We can avoid many illnesses by being mindful. This blog highlights the why and when, and gives you a brief history of how we came to realise the importance of washing our hands.

Why wash your hands?
The point of handwashing is to remove germs and reduce the spread of disease and infection. Germs can be found everywhere, from light switches to door knobs. For example, particles of faeces can be transferred quickly from person to person, or onto objects. Just one gram can contain a trillion germs.

When do you need to wash them?
Washing your hands after going to the toilet reduces the spread of germs and disease. It's shocking what you can pick up by not washing your hands after going to the loo for instance.

Norovirus is often associated with cruise ships because of so many people in such a confined space.  Passengers are encouraged to wash their hands and antibacterial hand gel is available too. Although there's not a lot you can do if this is ignored by some.

Always wash your hands:

  • Before eating and before, during and after handling food. Not washing can cause severe diarrhoea, fever, headaches, stomach cramps, vomiting, and even norovirus and hepatitis A, among other more serious viruses.
  • When caring for someone who's ill. Not washing hands before and after can cause the spread of the sufferer's illness, and can cause the sufferer to catch other illnesses, particularly because their immune system is already weakened.
  • When treating a cut or wound. Wash hands before and after. If you don't, you can transmit hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV.
  • After changing a nappy or helping a child to use the toilet. You can spread hepatitis A, pinworms, and diarrhoea.
  • After blowing your nose, and coughing or sneezing into your hands. You can cause the spread of colds, coughs, or flu, if you don't.
  • After touching an animal, its food, or waste. You can spread ringworm, roundworm, tapeworm, hookworm, giardia, campylobacter, or rabies if you don't.
  • After touching water in ponds, lakes and streams. Not washing your hands afterwards can cause rashes, diarrohea, vomiting, muscle pain, conjunctivitis, blisters, and other more serious symptoms from illnesses like swimmer's itch.
  • After touching rubbish. You could get typhoid or tetanus. 
  • After going to the toilet. You can cause the spread of illnesses like norovirus, hand-foot-mouth disease, and adenovirus.

Back to basics: How to wash your hands
You might think that washing your hands is easy, but there is a technique to washing them effectively. A quick rinse with cold water doesn't count! Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in with clean warm water and soap.

  • Make sure to use enough soap to cover your hands and get a good lather going
  • Washing your hands should take at least 20 seconds, so try humming a few rounds of happy birthday to time yourself
  • Make sure you scrub all the nooks and crannies - don't just rub your palms together, but interlace those fingers to get in between them, and make sure you get the backs of your hands and fingers
  • Don't forget to scrub those fingernails!
  • Dry your hands well - it's important as wet hands can help spread bacteria
  • If you've used a paper towel to dry your hands, you can also use it to turn off the sink taps or grab the handle to pull the door open

Germ theory and how hand washing came about
Physicians only began to acknowledge the life-saving capabilities of handwashing in 1847, when a Hungarian doctor began to strongly encourage his colleagues to wash their hands before seeing to women who were about to give birth.

It seems unbelievable now, but back then medical students and their professors usually began their day by performing autopsies on women who had died from childbed fever. They would then continue their day's work by examining women who were about to give birth. As you can imagine, this pretty much guaranteed the spread of infection.

Germ theory came about between 1850 and 1920, revolutionising the theory and practice of medicine and the understanding of disease. Nutrition and sanitation started to improve as medical professionals started to build a more accurate picture of what makes the human body unwell. By the end of the 1800s, infection caused 30% of deaths. By the end of the 1900s, it caused less than 4%.

How far we've come
Hospitals today practice strict handwashing policies and use of alcohol gel, although this relies heavily on people remembering and bothering to follow this rule. Audits are carried out to check that staff are following the hand hygiene policy. There's even a World Hand Hygiene Day on 5th May, to raise awareness of how important hand washing is. It's shocking how easy it can be to pick up germs. It's also pretty gross.

Stay healthy
In summary, we need to be mindful of what we're touching and whether it could spread germs and illness. People's social habits are so diverse that one of the best ways to support your immune system is to eat healthily, get a good amount of exercise and sleep, and minimise contact with people who are ill. And of course: wash your hands!

Want to learn more?

The forgotten germs

Are you as healthy as you think?

Easy ways to prevent a cold

UK websites to support your health