The Winter season can be rife with sickness, colds, and flus that many of us will experience at least once before the weather turns for the better. One of the reasons we transmit illness during the colder months is because we find ourselves congregating in larger numbers and in closer conditions as a way to escape the cold and stay warm. Staying contained, indoors concentrates our activities as well as the bacteria we might carry along with us.
Dry and warm indoor conditions allow exhaled pathogens to remain suspended in the air and on surfaces for longer periods of time. The flu virus for instance can exist 2-3 feet in the air around an infected individual. Additionally, the coldness that we’ve been subjecting ourselves to can be a challenging task for our bodies, their organs, and the systems that keep us healthy.
Staying prepared during these frigid conditions with the microorganisms that float and grow on the surfaces all around us is easy. One of the most effective preventative ways from getting sick is to wash your hands on a regular basis. When we fail to clean our hands consistently, the risk of infection increases dramatically. Our hands can touch our face a couple thousand times a day. This hand-to-face contact means the regular transport of germs from sources such as the surfaces and hands into absorbing mediums such as the eyes or lips.
There are two main principles to understand when washing our hands: first is the ability to decrease the overall presence of bacteria on the top layer of our skin. When we use traditional bar soap and warm water, the slippery lather will help isolate, lift, and then wash away the bacteria with a good rinse. Allowing this process to work most effectively requires 20 seconds. Many people do not in fact lather and work the soap in for 20 seconds prior to a rinse (usually just a quick 5-10 seconds). By decreasing the overall biomass of the bacteria on the hands, it allows good bacteria to remain while it fights and controls the spread of any harmful germs.
The other consideration is to kill the bacteria completely. The use of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers with chlorine and alcohol ingredients is much more convenient than finding a sink, lathering, rinsing, and drying. Killing the bacteria is effective in the short term but poses some potential problems for the long run.
Antibacterial gels and soaps (sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps) kill everything, including the good bacteria. The absence of good bacteria can create a blank slate for bad bacteria to arrive and multiply. Overtime the regular use of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers can become ineffective, allowing germs to form a resistance to these ingredients and flourish rapidly.
Here’s a reminder on effective ways to reduce that small, hazardous microbes on your hands. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end TWO TIMES. Scrubbing helps lift the bacteria out of tiny skin crevices. Try to pay particular attention to fingernails as these can store dirt and germs underneath.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. Rinsing the soap off completely will reduce any residues which may cause dry, cracked skin.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.