As toddlers, we learnt to wash our hands. But, did we ever master the skill to the extent that is needed to wash pathogens off our hands, and save lives? Multiple studies show people don't wash their hands at the right times, in the right way or for the right amount of time. We contaminate the things and people we touch with the germs we carry on our hands.
Viruses spread very quickly from an infected person to others through:
- the air, after coughing or sneezing
- close personal contact, such as when shaking hands or touching others
- touching an object or surface on which the virus is found, then - before washing the hands - touching the mouth, nose, or eyes
“The world is bracing against the outbreak of potentially deadly Novel Coronavirus, branded a public health emergency,” says Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, Discovery Health Head of the Centre for Clinical Excellence. “And, Influenza (flu) season is weeks away hitting the Southern Hemisphere. That’s on the back of the early and severe flu season that hit the Northern Hemisphere in recent months. So, this year we face a combined threat - the Novel Coronavirus reaching South African shores, and the new flu strains that are definitely heading our way - a double whammy for immune systems to fight off. And, both viruses are potentially deadly.”
The Influenza virus kills an average of 470 000 people each year. Let’s put that into perspective. Most large airplanes carry around 550 passengers. That equates to all the people on 854 flights, dying of flu each year. “Many of these deaths could have been prevented if people had their annual flu vaccine and practiced other preventative habits like correct hand-washing,” adds Dr Nematswerani.
The Novel Coronavirus caused 2000 deaths and 76 000 infections within its first two months of outbreak. That’s equivalent to 139 flights filled with infected people.
“If we, as a South African people, are willing to check in on our hand-washing habits and make sure we are washing our hands in the right way, we will go a long way to preventing the spread of viral illnesses in our country and to other countries that we travel to. We don’t require new technological innovations or high-cost strategies to do this. It comes down to using one of our oldest inventions – a bar of soap – and washing our hands right,” adds Dr Nematswerani.
HOW LONG should you wash your hands for?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people need to vigorously wash their hands for at least 20 seconds to kill viruses or bacteria. “Most people wash their hands for around six seconds,” adds Dr Nematswerani. “That means that dirt and microbes that spread illnesses are staying on their hands, upping our chances of becoming ill and making others ill.”
- An excellent way to ensure the right amount of time is spent washing hands is to simultaneously hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end, twice.
HOW should you wash your hands?
Using soap and water:
- Wet hands with water and apply enough soap to cover all surfaces of the hands
- Rub hands palm to palm to obtain a good quantity of foam
- Rub the right palm over the back of the left hand with interlaced fingers - and vice versa
- Rub hands palm to palm again, with fingers interlaced
- Rub the back of your fingers into the opposing palm with fingers interlaced
- Rub rotationally with the left hand clasped in right palm and vice versa
- To clean the tips of the fingers, group them into a point and rub them into the opposite palm in a rotational pattern
- Rinse hands thoroughly with running water
- Dry hands thoroughly with a single-use towel
- If the tap is not elbow operated, use the same towel to turn off the tap.
When soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub as follows:
- Count to 5 for each of the following steps
- Apply a palmful of hand rub into a cupped hand – enough to cover all the surfaces of the hands.
- Rub hands palm to palm, with fingers interlaced.
- Then rub each palm over the back of the other hand with interlaced fingers
- Again rub hands palm to palm with fingers interlaced
- Group your fingers into a point and rub them in a circular pattern into each palm
- Rub each palm rotationally within each opposing hand
- Clean each thumbs by rubbing it in a rotational way while it is clasped by the fingers of the opposite hand
- Clean the tips of your fingers by rubbing them into each opposing palm
- NOTE: Use of an alcohol-based hand rub is not appropriate when hands are visibly dirty or after using the toilet. Ideally, use soap and water to clean your hands.
And, WHEN should we wash our hands?
The World Health Organization recommends:
1. Washing your hands with soap and water when your hands are visibly dirty.
2. If your hands are not visibly dirty then clean them with soap and water or clean them with an alcohol-based hand rub/sanitiser.
3. Washing your hands often, especially:
- After coughing or sneezing
- When caring for the sick
- After being in environments where ill people are cared for, like hospitals
- Before during and after preparing food
- Before eating
- After using the toiler
- After handling animals or animal waste
- After touching garbage
4. Also, remember to avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
5. And, always practice cough etiquette when you cough by maintaining your distance from others and cover your mouth and nose with clothing, or with a flexed elbow or a tissue (discard it immediately) and wash your hands immediately afterwards.
6. Keep your hands clean to reduce your risk of infection while travelling:
- Avoid close contact with people suffering from fever and cough
- Frequently clean your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands, especially when using public transport
- If you choose to wear a face mask be sure to cover your mouth and nose and avoid touching the mask once it’s on
Immediately discard single-used mask after each use and wash your hands after removing the mask
For more information on coronaviruses read our FAQ documentSources
- WHO – COVID-19 Mythbusters – advice for the public
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Novel Coronavirus 2019 (nCoV-2019)
- National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Update on novel coronavirus 2019
All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.
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