In our ongoing series on staying healthy in times of trouble, we have spent time talking about proper disposal of human waste, water sterilization, and food preparation. At this point, we will discuss one very important strategy to keeping infectious disease from running rampant among your people: proper hand hygiene. In and of itself, keeping everyone’s hands clean will be a major factor in maintaining the medical well-being of your family or community.
Wash Your Hands to Prevent Disease
It’s thought that more than 90,000 people die every year in this country from diseases passed from poorly washed hands. Amazingly, many of these infections are caught in a hospital setting.
The hands, when neglected as a source of infection, can carry a multitude of organisms that can cause disease. These include viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Most doctors commonly assume that their patients know exactly what these are, but many people have just a vague idea and group them together. There are differences, however:
Bacteria (singular form Bacterium): simple micro-organisms consisting of one cell which exist and reproduce almost everywhere; some don’t even require oxygen.
Parasites: organisms, microscopic or larger, that must live on a host entity to survive, yet provide no benefit to that host. For example, an intestinal tapeworm.
Viruses: Not even one whole cell, these are pieces of genetic material (DNA or RNA) in a protein shell that reproduce only when inside the cells of a living organism.
Not all bacteria or even viruses are necessarily harmful or parasitic. Bacteria that naturally lives in your gut helps digest your food; some viruses may enter harmful bacteria and destroy them. Despite this, there are a multitude of disease-causing microbes, and your hands are one of the most common ways they enter your system. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), poor hand hygiene is the main cause for the spread of infection.
Hand Hygiene and Illness
We rarely pay enough attention to hand hygiene, and pay the penalty for this by contracting all sorts of illnesses. Rhinoviruses (cold and flus) Noroviruses and E. Coli (stomach “flus”), Strep throat, Hepatitis A and B, and MRSA are just a few of the ways that you pay the piper by not keeping your hands clean. Some of these bugs can remain alive on your hands for hours. Honk if you’ve done one or more of the following:
Forgotten to wash your hands after using the toilet (yes, guys, even if you just visited the urinal)
Forgotten to wash your hands before preparing a meal
Covered a cough with your bare hands, and then touched your mouth or eyes (A Berkeley study monitored college students: 15.7 hand-to-face touches per hour)
Put your hand in a communal bowl of candy or nuts, especially unwrapped
Washed your hands after using the toilet, and then touched the doorknob of the restroom on the way out (Doh!)
Touched or been licked by your pets (they lick all sorts of places that have germs that can cause disease)
I hear a lot of car horns. So, if you have identified yourself as part of the problem, how can you become part of the solution? Besides following the advice I’ve given in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, wash your hands in the following manner, as recommended by the CDC:
Wet your hands with WARM water and then apply soap
Rub your hands together for 20 seconds (20, 19, 18, 17….)
Rinse well with warm running water
Dry your hands with a paper towel, if possible, or use an air dryer (I disagree with the air dryer, more below…)
For restrooms, take the paper towel and use it to turn off the water and open the door as you leave
If water is not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol from fingertips to wrist
It is important to know that hand sanitizers are unlikely to be very effective on visibly soiled hands. As to air dryers, warm jet air dryers actually harbor microbes and the air stream can propel them up to six feet. given the choice between paper towels and air dryers, choose the former. You can make a major impact on the level of good sanitation in your home or retreat by expanding the reasons why you wash your hands. You should wash your hands:
Before and after caring for a sick person (even if you are putting on gloves)
When You are treating an injury that breaks the skin
When You are changing diapers or wiping for a toddler
After You touch garbage
Before You eat
Before, during, and after cooking
After using the restroom
After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
For the average person, this may represent a lot more hand washing, and that’s good. In hospitals, the better an appropriate hand hygiene program is followed, the fewer people die from infectious causes. You can be certain that it will make a difference in your survival community, as well. If you make certain to pass on good hand washing habits to the children in your group, you may have just saved a future generation from a preventable infectious outbreak that could impede the rebuilding of an entire society. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.