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KERA Health Checkup: Washing Your Hands

By Sam Baker, KERA Morning Edition Host

Dallas, TX –

It's such a simple act, but washing our hands can make a big difference on health. In our KERA Health Checkup, Sam Baker talked about this with Dr. Anna Bowen, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Bowen: Studies have shown that in some areas hand washing can prevent about 50-percent of diarrhea cases and about 50-percent of pneumonia cases among young children. The developed world, maybe about 30-percent of diarrhea cases could be prevented and 16-percent of respiratory infections through the simple act of hand washing.

Sam: And, of course, were in or near flu season, so I guess washing you hands can really make a difference.

Dr. Bowen: Yes. As we enter the respiratory season, hand washing is a great adjunct to some of the other flu and other respiratory disease prevention techniques such as covering your cough, coughing into your elbow or your sleeve, and getting your flu shot.

Sam: If something so simple accomplishes so much, why do so many not do it?

Dr. Bowen: That's a great question, and one that researchers around the world are working hard to understand right now. Behavior change tends to be difficult. We're all busy. We have lots of priorities and making time to get all the way across the room to wash your hands, before eating lunch or after coughing or sneezing, sometimes just doesn't make it on to the priority list.

Sam: When should you wash your hands?

Dr. Bowen: There are several key times when disease transmission is most likely. We tend to focus on washing hands before handling food, such as before cooking, before eating and before feeding someone else, such as a young child. And also, after using the toilet. And other key times, of course, are when your hands are visibly dirty after you've handled trash.

Sam: You know a recent story I heard suggested the gas pump was the mostly likely place to pick up germs.

Dr. Bowen: There are lots of objects we call fomites that are handled by lots of people and can pick up a lot of germs, so after touching things that can be handled by lots of people, it's probably a good idea to clean your hands.

Sam: What is the right way to clean your hands?

Dr. Bowen: Ideally, we would wet our hands, lather up with soap for about 20 seconds, and scrub all the surfaces of our hands - the front, the backs, in between our fingers, particularly under our fingernails where the bulk of the germs tend to reside. And then rinse and dry with a clean towel or an air dryer.

Sam: Does it matter if the water is hot or cold?

Dr. Bowen: No. We've been recommending that people use whatever is comfortable for them.

Sam: Public restrooms, how should we handle ourselves in there when washing our hands, because that's an area that scares a lot of people?

Dr. Bowen: Right. There has been a lot of sensational stories about location of germs, the number of germs on public restroom surfaces. But the key is to get in there and use soap, wash your hands, and then if you feel more comfortable, use a paper towel to open the bathroom door. That's perfectly fine and probably safer than touching the door surface itself.

Sam: By the way, are sanitizers a good alternative?

Dr. Bowen: Well, hand sanitizers are great in that they're portable, you don't need a sink nearby, and so it makes hand cleansing very easy and convenient. They don't tend to work well for certain types of germs. And they also don't work well when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

Sam: How do we get more people to wash their hands, to make that a habit?

Dr. Bowen: That's a million dollar question. And current evidence suggests that our best chance is by creating a habit of hand washing by starting among children when they're very young, and making washing with soap at the key times a habit that will be carried forward throughout their lives.

Dr. Anna Bowen is with the Centers for Disease Control.

For more information and tips on hand washing: