Handwashing Awareness Week: Soap and water save lives

December 5, 2023 Swedish Health Team

[5 min read]

In this article: 

  • With surges in COVID-19, influenza and RSV handwashing is critical in preventing the spread of illness and keeping ourselves healthy. 

  • Studies show that you need to scrub for 20 seconds to remove harmful germs and chemicals from your hands. 

  • Check out the video of a helpful demonstration from our Sesame Street friends Elmo and Rosita! 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that good hand hygiene is an important weapon in defending ourselves and others against serious illness.

"Again, this year, COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial (RSV) are on the rise. Germs get into our bodies through our eyes, nose and mouth, and can put us at risk for severe illness. We also risk making others critically ill. Handwashing is a vital and simple way we can help keep ourselves and others healthy," says Evan Sylvester, Swedish's director of infection prevention.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many diseases are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water. If soap and water aren't available, says the CDC, using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid spreading germs to others. And in case you're wondering, yes, there's plenty of evidence to support the importance of proper handwashing and what we know about why and how it works! 

How harmful germs spread

Harmful germs can spread from other people or surfaces when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; prepare or eat foods or drinks with unwashed hands; touch contaminated surfaces; or blow your nose, cough or sneeze into your hands and then touch other people or common objects. If you have to sneeze, and don't have a tissue, sneeze into the crook of your elbow, to minimize contaminating your hands. (Here's a helpful demonstration from our Sesame Street friends Elmo and Rosita!) Be sure to use hand sanitizer immediately and wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you can get to soap and water. 

Is there a right way to wash our hands? 

Yes! The CDC recommends the following five steps for proper handwashing hygiene:

  • Wet: Use clean, running water (warm or cold), then turn off the water, and apply soap.
  • Lather: Rub hands together to spread around soap; don’t miss backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails.
  • Scrub: For 20 seconds or more. You can hum “Happy Birthday” twice, or the ABC song once, to help measure time.
  • Rinse: Under clean, running water.
  • Dry: Use a clean towel (not the damp one used to wipe down your kitchen counters!) or simply air dry.

No soap or running water? 

The CDC recommends using hand sanitizer if soap and water aren't readily available. Be sure your sanitizer is at least 60% alcohol; you can tell by reading the label. Just keep in mind that sanitizers don't get rid of all types of germs; may not be as effective on visibly dirty or greasy hands; and may not remove harmful chemicals like pesticides or heavy metals. Apply the amount instructed on the label onto one palm, rub hands together, then rub thoroughly over both hands and all fingers until dry. Be sure to keep hand sanitizers out of reach of young children because they can be poisonous if ingested. 

When should we wash our hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food.
  • Before and after eating food.
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound.
  • After using the toilet.
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste.
  • After handling pet food or pet treats.
  • After touching garbage.

Why should we wash our hands?

  • Washing hands prevents illnesses and spread of infections to others.
  • Not washing hands harms children around the world; about 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die every year from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia.
  • Handwashing helps battle the rise in antibiotic resistant infections, which require extended hospital stays, and costly, toxic alternative treatments.  

Find a doctor

Even the best handwashers get sick sometimes. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, Swedish is here for you. You can visit your primary care doctor or use Swedish ExpressCare Virtual, which connects you face-to-face with a practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Additional resources

RSV isn't just a cold 

Watch video: Five ways to stay healthy this flu season

What vaccinations do you need to get this fall?

¿Qué vacunas necesita recibir este otoño?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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