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Global Handwashing Day reminds us that a small actions can have big returns

You may have missed it, but this past Sunday, October 15th, was Global Handwashing Day. And while handwashing is important for everyone, it’s especially important for our little ones, who often forget when and how often to wash their hands.

There’s a saying about public health practices “when it works, its invisible”. This adage definitely applies to handwashing. No one knows how many viruses they HAVEN’T gotten because they were diligent about hand hygiene. But when you’re suffering through the last stomach virus that tore its way through your first grader’s classroom, you’re probably wondering how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

A Bit of History: “Discovery” of Handwashing

Long before anyone understood microscopic pathogens and viral transmission, hand hygiene was “discovered” in the 1840s when a doctor in Austria, Ignaz Semmelweis, noticed that women whose babies were delivered in hospital by male doctors had a much higher mortality rate than women whose babies were delivered by female midwives. He realized this had to do with cadavers; the male doctors would perform autopsies while teaching students during morning rounds, and then deliver babies later in the day without first washing their hands. He deduced this had to do with “cadaver particles” which were being transferred to the mothers and their babies. After instituting mandatory handwashing and sanitation procedures, mortality rates decreased drastically.

In spite of Semmelweis’s discovery and the obvious success of his recommended sanitation practices, it took years for anyone to take his theories seriously. In fact, his work was condemned and rejected by the doctors of his time. It wasn’t after Semmelweis’s death that any real sanitation practices were accepted in the medical community. Eventually, Semmelweis’s work led to Louis Pasteur’s development of germ theory, which changed the world’s understanding of pathogens and disease.

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Handwashing with soap and water is one of the simplest, most effective ways to stop the spread of germs and stay healthy. Keeping hands clean can prevent 1 in 3 diarrheal illnesses and 1 in 5 respiratory infections, such as the common cold or flu.

According to CDC, studies show that handwashing education in the community can:

  • Reduce the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by about 23%–40%
  • Reduce the number of school days children missed because of gastrointestinal illness by 29%–57%
  • Reduce diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by about 58%
  • Reduce respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by about 16%–21%

The Right Way to Wash your Hands

You might think you already know how to wash your hands. While that may be true, it’s never too late for a refresher!

You can help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy by washing your hands often, especially during these key times when you are likely to get and spread germs:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before and after eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • 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 handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to clean your hands.

Follow Five Steps to Wash Your Hands the Right Way

Washing your hands the right way is easy, and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Clean hands can help stop germs from spreading from one person to another and in our communities—including your home, workplace, schools, and childcare facilities.

Follow these five steps every time.

Wash Your Hands English image
  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or an air dryer.

Why? Read the science behind the recommendations.

More Information

CDC has loads of great information about handwashing and we encourage you to check it out, especially if you work in a school, daycare, elder care or other healthcare setting.

Frequent Questions About Hand Hygiene | Handwashing | CDC

The link below provides excellent educational flyers and materials that can be shared electronically or printed for bulletin boards, bathrooms, or other high visibility areas.

Health Promotion Materials | Handwashing | CDC

Interested in learning more about the surprisingly interesting history of handwashing? Check out this enlightening NPR segment about Ignaz Semmelweis and his fascinating observations (which were highly undervalued at the time): The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing And Briefly Saved Lives.