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Wash Those Pesky Germs Down the Drain

The following Healthy Kids column originally appeared in the January 21, 2005 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

It�s no secret that many of us enjoy singing in the shower.   But it seems that more of us should sing at the sink, as well.

Just 20 seconds spent washing your hands � the time it takes to sing the alphabet song or �Happy Birthday,� for example � can help to ward off harmful bacteria and other germs that cause infection and illness.

With cold and flu season kicking into high gear, proper hand washing with soap and warm water is critical to good health.   But in addition to these seasonal illnesses, other diseases � like hepatitis A, meningitis, and infectious diarrhea � can be prevented year-round if we all pick up the hand-washing habit.

Infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death and disease worldwide, as well as the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  

"Hand washing is the single most effective thing you can do to stop the spread of germs, but many people either don't wash often enough or fail to wash properly," says Joyce Berkowitz, Infection Control Coordinator at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.   "Parents should be hand-washing role models for their children, and teach them to wash hands before meals, after bathroom use, after coughing or sneezing, and even when the child comes in after play."

Berkowitz says proper hand washing is as easy as 1-2-3.

  • Wet your hands and apply liquid or clean bar soap. Use regular soap. The use of antibacterial soaps can contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
  • Rub your hands vigorously together and scrub the front and back of your hands, between fingers, and around fingernails. Continue lathering for 15 to 20 seconds (this will seem like a long time at first, but it�s time well-spent). The soap combines with the scrubbing action to help dislodge and remove germs.
  • Rinse well and dry your hands with a disposable towel. Use the towel to turn off the water and to open the bathroom door, then throw all those germs away with the towel.

One of the most common ways people catch colds is by rubbing their nose or their eyes after their hands have been contaminated with the cold virus. Illness can spread quickly in a setting like school, where children can easily spread germs and where those germs can live for up to two hours on desks, cafeteria tables and other surfaces.

The CDC advises that it is especially important to wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after you prepare food
  • Before you eat, and after you use the bathroom
  • After handling animals or animal waste
  • When your hands are dirty, and
  • More frequently when someone in your home is sick.

When soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers.You can find them in most supermarkets and drugstores.

Alcohol-based sanitizers are so effective that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended them as an alternative to traditional soap-and-water hand washing in hospitals.   At Cardinal Glennon, for example, hundreds of sanitizer dispensers are available throughout the hospital for use by caregivers.

If using a gel product, rub it in your hands until they are dry. The gel doesn't need water to work; the alcohol in the gel kills germs that cause colds and the flu. However, alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers do not remove dirt, so be sure to wash visibly dirty hands with soap and water.

The CDC reports that nearly 22 million school days are lost each year to the common cold, not to mention the days that are lost to flu or other contagious diseases.  But a study published in 2000 in the American Journal of Infection Control found that elementary school students who practiced proper hand hygiene missed fewer days of school than their counterparts who failed to do so.          

If you need more reasons to wash your hands regularly, look no further than the following sobering statistic:   A 2003 observational survey sponsored by the American Society of Microbiology found that more than 26 percent of people who used restrooms in five U.S. airports failed to wash their hands afterward.

Even if you�re among the three out of four who do wash regularly, you�re sharing doorknobs, desks and other surfaces with those who don�t.  It�s enough to make you � and everyone else around you � sick.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children�s Hospital and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a child health question for Dr. Wilmott, go to the �Ask Dr. Bob� section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at

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