THE DETAILS: The French study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used computer models to examine healthcare worker and patient interactions. The researchers found the a single "peripatetic" healthcare worker (a doctor, nurse, or technician who moves about a hospital frequently, visiting patients in different wards) who didn't wash hands could spread almost as much infection as the entire rest of the hospital staff put together.
WHAT IT MEANS: If a single healthcare worker can spread infection that rapidly around a hospital, just imagine how easily infections are spread in public among people who have frequent contact with others but don't exercise precautions. Hand washing is where it all starts, both to protect you and those around you. "Especially now with everything that's circulating, one of the most basic things you can do is practice good hand hygiene," says Lynn Cromer, RN, MT, CIC, an infection-control consultant with the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network and spokesperson for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
Whether in the hospital, at work, or puttering around the house, proper hand washing can save stop germs cold:
• Ask for it. When you're at the doctor's office, ask the doctors and nurses to wash their hands if you don't see them do it when they enter the room. Infection-control specialists recommend doing so as a way to protect yourself and others. You'll not only stay protected from the flu, but you'll also ward off potentially deadly MRSA bacteria and other germs.
• Don't sweat the heat. Proper hand washing has nothing to do with temperature, says Cromer. "Hot water will dry out your hands and make them more prone to dermatitis." And she has science to back her up: A 2005 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found no difference in the presence of bacteria on hands washed in 120-degree F water compared with hands washed in 40-degree F water. "It's not the temperature of the water that matters," says Cromer. "It's the friction of washing hands and the running water washing off what you want to remove that kills bacteria." So you don't have to wait for the water to get as hot as you can stand it. Stick with warm water that's comfortable, so you'll be more prone to wash for the recommended 15 seconds, or just go with cold if you're in a rush.
• Wash properly. For optimal germ fighting, follow our hand-washing advice:
1. Wet your hands with warm running water. Cold will work in a pinch, but warm is more comfortable and you'll be less likely to stop too soon.
2. Add soap and rub hands vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds. The rubbing is critical, so don't skimp on it. Rub and lather all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, between your fingers, your fingertips, and under your fingernails.
3. Rinse, keeping your fingers pointed down. Rinsing is what washes the germs away, so be thorough.
4. Dry your hands vigorously with paper or a clean cloth towel to remove any straggling microbes. If someone in your house already has a flu infection, it’s best to use paper towels and toss the used paper in the trash (look for a brand made from recycled paper).
5. To avoid picking up stray germs, use a towel to turn off the faucet and to open the door afterward.
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