David McCormack: Graceful Health | The fastest way to health

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Quick — what's the fastest, easiest thing you can do to protect your health?

If you guessed, "Wash my hands," you are correct!

Dec. 1 to 7 is National Handwashing Awareness Week, a perfect opportunity for this important reminder.

Washing your hands is fast: It takes just 20 seconds to do it right. Need a timer? The CDC suggests you hum the "Happy Birthday" song twice while you wash.

Washing your hands correctly is also easy. Just follow these five steps:

1. Wet your hands (warm or cold water, your choice).

2. Lather your hands, front and back.

3. Scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds. Don't forget these often-missed areas: nail beds, wrists, between the fingers, and especially the back of the thumb.

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4. Rinse well under clean, running water.

5. Dry your hands on a clean towel or air dry them.

That's it! This is an incredibly powerful, effective action that can reap important health benefits.

The most common way that germs are spread is via your hands. Eighty percent of all infections are transmitted by the hands.

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An infection spread by unclean hands can have a devastating impact on your family and your community. Germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to other objects, like door knobs, handrails, tabletops, or toys, and then transferred to another person's hands. Did you know that a typical desk has up to 10 million bacteria — 100 times the number usually found on the average kitchen table, and 400 times the average number of germs on a toilet seat?

Just how fast can a surface become contaminated? Here's a spoiler alert: Really fast.

Researchers at the University of Arizona used a simulated norovirus (a virus that causes the stomach flu) to contaminate commonly touched surfaces in an office building. After several hours, they sampled 60 to 100 surfaces capable of carrying the virus — surfaces like door knobs, light switches, push buttons on the elevator, coffee pot handles, or sink tap handles — things that are unavoidable. Researchers found that within two to four hours, between 40-60 percent of the surfaces sampled were contaminated, meaning that the virus had made its way around the office before lunch.

Despite widespread knowledge of the importance of handwashing, there is still room for improvement. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women wash their hands after using a public restroom. They also found that handwashing could prevent one-third of diarrhea-related sicknesses and 20 percent of respiratory infections, such as a cold or the flu. They estimated that washing hands with soap and water could reduce diarrheal disease-associated deaths by up to 50 percent. If everyone routinely washed their hands, they estimate that a million deaths a year could be prevented.

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Per the CDC, handwashing education has been found to reduce absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in schoolchildren by 29-57 percent.

Handwashing also helps battle the rise in antibiotic resistance, according to the CDC. By preventing sickness, fewer antibiotics are used, and the likelihood that antibiotic resistance will develop is lessened. Handwashing can also help prevent sickness from germs that are already resistant to antibiotics and can therefore be difficult to treat.

Handwashing is best, but in a pinch, you can use hand sanitizer. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not create antibiotic-resistant superbugs. They kills germs quickly and in a different way than antibiotics. It's true that these hand sanitizers kill both bad germs that make you sick and good germs you need to keep you healthy, but the good germs are quickly replenished.

Hand sanitizers are NOT effective against Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that causes severe diarrhea — you MUST wash your hands with soap and water after exposure to this bacteria.

Using gloves is not a substitute for washing your hands. They protect you while you are working in a soiled environment, but be sure to clean your hands after removing your gloves, as dirty gloves can contaminate your hands.

The bottom line is this: Handwashing is one of the best things you can do to avoid getting sick and spreading illness to others.

Want to stay healthy this winter? Be a superhero, to yourself and others — wash your hands!

David McCormack, family nurse practitioner, joined the staff of Grace Cottage Family Health in May 2018. He earned his Associates Degree from Vermont Technical College, his BSN from the University of Vermont, and his Master of Science at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, with a Family Nurse Practitioner focus. He holds certifications in emergency nursing, advanced trauma nursing, and emergency pediatric nursing.


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