Washing your hands is a time-honored bit of advice we have heard from our parents and grandparents for a long time, probably since soap was invented. As a bit of advice, it belongs to other such honored items as, "Wear a hat when it's cold, or you'll get sick," "Don't cross your eyes or they'll get stuck," and ""Clean your plate, don't leave food on it."
But, does washing your hands really do anything? The answer is yes, it really does have an impact on the spread of germs, but of course that impact all depends on where you are- at home, in the hospital, in the operating room, for example.
The germs hand-washing might stop from spreading
Before we get into just what hand washing does, a word on what sort of infections it might prevent. In the United States, nearly all the infections we encounter in daily life are either from germs called viruses or germs called bacteria. They are quite different. Viruses are the germs that cause infections such as colds, flus, stomach flus, mono, viral pneumonia, chickenpox, and warts. Bacteria are the germs that create pus, such as ear infections, bacterial pneumonia, strep throat, abscesses, and impetigo. Viruses are very contagious, bacteria less so. Viruses turn out to be bits of DNA that land on you and make you make more copies of that viral DNA, essentially causing an information cycle that just happens to irritate the cells forced to participate. Bacteria are more like us, they are cells that land on us and eat our cells, just like we eat. Antibiotics kill bacteria, but have no effect on viruses.
What does handwashing do in the home?
With all that in mind, let's look at what hand-washing can do in the home. It turns out at home and in school, the vast majority of infections that spread around are from viruses. With the exception of strep throat there are no very common infections that are spread by bacteria. So, if hand washing is going to make a difference at home, it would have to stop the spread of common viruses seen in the home or school. Those viruses split into two main types- those that infect the nose, throat, eye, and lung (colds and flus), and those that infect the stomach and gut (stomach flus). The respiratory viruses tend to spread in the air, and the gut viruses by hand contact. You might see now that if you wash your hands it has no impact on what happens if you sneeze or cough, or even just breath. You can even have your hands soaking in disinfectant, and if you sneeze, the virus will spread just fine. But it is the case that if you are very careful about hand washing, you an decrease the spread of stomach flus which need a handshake to go from one person to another. So, it turns out that hand washing has very little impact on the spread of colds and flus, but can make a difference on the spread of stomach flus.
What about in the hospital?
The hospital is a special place for germs. There is a very unfortunate irony that the more we gather sick, really sick people, into one building, the more nasty bacteria will be in that building. And this is clearly the case for hospitals. There are loads of studies that prove that hospitals are unique places for the number and concentration of really dangerous bacteria. And we also know that perhaps the #1 way dangerous bacteria travel from person to person in a hospital is on hands. And so it comes as no surprise that it has been proven that if everyone washed their hands after touching anyone, anytime, in a hospital, many lives would be saved by preventing the spread of dangerous bacteria.
- If visiting anyone in a hospital, even the newborn nursery section, wash your hands, a lot! Everytime you enter a room, after shaking a hand, holding the baby, wash your hands.
- At home, handwashing is a really good idea if stomach flu is circulating, and not a bad thing to do to stay clean, but has little impact on the spread of respiratory infections like colds and regular flus.
Dr. Arthur Lavin
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