What is hand-washing?

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Hand-washing: Overview

It is important for caregivers to wash their hands properly. This is the single best way to prevent the spread of infections. Hand-washing can help keep you from getting sick. It is easy, doesn't cost much, and it works.

Make sure that you and your caregivers follow safe hand-washing routines. Caregivers may include health care workers or family members at home or in a care facility. You can talk to them about this information on hand-washing.

What is hand-washing?

Hand-washing is more than just running water over your hands. Washing your hands with soap and water is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infections. It helps prevent diseases, such as colds, flu, and food poisoning. It's easy. It doesn't cost much. And it works.

What if soap and water are not available for hand-washing?

If soap and water aren't available, use a hand sanitizer or alcohol-based hand wipe that contains at least 60% ethyl alcohol or isopropanol. Carry one or both with you when you travel, and keep them in your car or purse. These products can help reduce the number of germs on your hands. But they don't get rid of all types of germs.

If you use sanitizer, rub your hands and fingers until they are dry. You don't need to use water. The alcohol quickly kills many types of germs on your hands.

When should you wash your hands?

Wash your hands:

  • Often, especially during cold and flu season. This can reduce your risk of catching or spreading a cold or the flu.
  • Before, during, and after you prepare food. This reduces your risk of catching or spreading bacteria that cause food poisoning. Be especially careful to wash before and after you prepare poultry, raw eggs, meat, or seafood.
  • Before and after you care for someone who is sick. It's also important to wash your hands before and after you treat a cut or wound.
  • Before you eat.

Wash your hands after you:

  • Go to the bathroom or change diapers. This reduces your risk of catching or spreading diseases such as salmonella or hepatitis A.
  • Cough, sneeze, or blow your nose.
  • Handle or prepare foods, especially after you touch raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, or eggs.
  • Touch an animal, animal waste, pet food, or pet treats.
  • Handle garbage, use the phone, or shake hands.

How can handwashing help you avoid infections in the hospital?

Washing your hands is one of the most important things you can do to prevent infection while you're in the hospital. Make sure to wash your hands:

  • After returning to your room from other parts of the hospital.
  • After shaking hands or otherwise touching visitors or members of your health care team.
  • Before and after you eat.
  • After using the bathroom.
  • After using the phone or the TV remote control in your room or touching anything else in the room, like your window curtains.
  • Anytime you think of it.

Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer next to your bed to clean your hands when you can't—or don't want to—get up to use the sink.

Make sure others wash their hands

All people who come in contact with you should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer when they first come into your room.

Health care workers already know they must do this, but sometimes they get in a hurry and forget. If you don't see them wash their hands in your room, remind them to do it.

And don't worry about offending them. Just say, "Oops, don't forget to wash your hands!" They want you to do this. In fact, in some hospitals, doctors and nurses wear buttons that say, "Ask me if I've washed my hands."

Visitors need to follow the same rules. That bottle of hand sanitizer next to your bed will be a good reminder. Just hand it to them when they first come in.

How can your caregivers wash their hands effectively?

  • Caregivers should wash their hands with soap and water:
    • When their hands are dirty, especially after being exposed to body fluids. This includes blood.
    • When their hands may have been exposed to germs that could spread infection.
    • After they touch broken skin, sores, or wound bandages.
    • After they use the bathroom.
  • At other times, caregivers can use an alcohol-based gel sanitizer or soap and water to clean hands. This should be done:
    • Before and after any contact with you.
    • After they take off gloves.
    • Before they handle a device that touches your body (even if gloves are used).
    • After they touch any objects near you, such as medical equipment, lights, or doorknobs.
    • Before they handle medicine or prepare food.

Proper hand-washing for caregivers

  • When using an alcohol-based gel sanitizer, fill your palm with the gel. Then spread it all over your hands. Rub your hands together until they are dry.
  • When washing hands with soap and water:
    • Wet your hands with running water, and apply soap.
    • Rub your hands together to make a lather. Scrub well for at least 20 seconds.
    • Pay special attention to your wrists, the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
    • Rinse your hands well under running water.
    • Use a clean towel to dry your hands, or air-dry your hands. You may want to use a clean towel as a barrier between the faucet and your clean hands when you turn off the water.
  • If you use bar soap, use small bars. Set the soap on a rack that lets water drain.

Hollis Helps With Hand-Washing

Hollis and his little brother hold out their clean hands.

Hi, I'm Hollis. Here I am with my little brother, Kal.

I'm a clean hands helper. That means I know all about how to be a good hand-washer and why it's important. And I can help teach other people how to do a good job keeping their hands clean too.

I'm teaching Kal about it first.

Hollis tells Kal about good times to wash your hands.

I tell Kal that being a good hand-washer helps fight germs.

"Germs are everywhere," I say. "You can't see them just by looking. And germs can make people sick. But when you do a good job washing your hands, you get rid of the germs that are hiding there!" Then I tell Kal about when I always make sure to wash my hands.

I wash my hands anytime they look dirty. And before I eat. I also wash them after I go to the bathroom or blow my nose. Or if I cough or sneeze. If somebody close to me coughs or sneezes, I make sure to wash my hands then too.

Kal wipes his hands on a dish towel and then shows them to Hollis.

Sometimes, you might think your hands are clean because they don't look dirty. But that's not always true.

Look at Kal. He just came in from playing outside. He must have had a lot of fun, because that guy's a mess!

Kal wiped his hands on the kitchen towel, so he thinks they're clean now.

Hollis shows Kal the germs that are still on his hands.

But Kal didn't use soap and water to wash up!

So even though his hands don't look too dirty, there are still some creepy little germs hanging on.

Hands scrubbing together to clean all their parts.

So I show Kal how to bust those germs by being a good hand-washer. Here's what you do.

Get your hands wet with clean water. Then put soap on them and scrub. Scrub the fronts and the backs, and under your fingernails. Keep on scrubbing for 20 seconds. That's about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.

Hollis and Kal sing and scrub their hands.

To keep Kal scrubbing long enough, we sing together. But I like to change the words of the "Happy Birthday" song to be about germ-fighting.

We sing:

Scrub the fronts of your hands.

Scrub the backs of your hands.

Scrub all your little fingers.

And wash the germs down the drain.

While we sing, we have a contest to see who can make the most bubbles.

Kal rinses his hands, and Hollis uses a towel to turn off the water.

When you’re done, rinse your hands. Then dry them with a clean towel.

If you can use a towel to turn off the faucet, that’s a good idea. That way, any germs on the faucet can’t jump back onto your clean hands.

Hollis and Kal high-five with clean hands.

That's it!

Being a good hand-washer isn't too hard. And now that you know how to do it, you can help teach other people too!

Now that you know how to be a clean hands helper like Hollis, who will you help first? What do you remember about when you should wash your hands? Is there a song you want to sing to make sure you scrub long enough?

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.