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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Hand-Washing - Topic Overview

Hand-washing is a simple and effective way to help prevent diseases, such as colds, flu, and food poisoning.

When to wash your hands

Washing hands:

  • Often, especially during cold and flu (influenza) season, can reduce your risk of catching or spreading a cold or the flu.
  • Before, during, and after preparing food reduces your risk of catching or spreading bacteria that cause food poisoning. Be especially careful to wash before and after preparing poultry, raw eggs, meat, or seafood.
  • After going to the bathroom or changing diapers reduces your risk of catching or spreading infectious diseases such as salmonella or hepatitis A.
  • Before and after you care for someone who is sick. It's also important to wash your hands before and after you treat a cut or wound.
  • Before you eat is also a good idea.

Wash your hands after:

  • Touching parts of your body that are not clean.
  • Using the bathroom.
  • Coughing, sneezing, or using a handkerchief or disposable tissue.
  • Handling or preparing foods, especially after touching raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, or eggs.
  • Touching an animal, animal waste, pet food, or pet treats.
  • Changing diapers, handling garbage, using the phone, or shaking hands.

Proper hand-washing

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the following steps for hand-washing:

  1. Wet your hands with running water and apply soap.
  2. Rub your hands together to make a lather. Scrub well for at least 20 seconds.
  3. Pay special attention to your wrists, the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
  4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  5. Use a clean towel to dry your hands, or air-dry your hands.

You may want to leave the water running while you dry your hands on a paper towel. Then use the paper towel as a barrier between the faucet and your clean hands when you turn off the water.

If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer or alcohol-based hand wipe that contains at least 60% ethyl alcohol or isopropanol. Carry one or both with you when you travel, and keep them in your car or purse. These products can help reduce the number of germs on your hands, but they do not get rid of all types of germs.

If you use sanitizer, rub your hands and fingers until they are dry. You don't need to use water. The alcohol quickly kills many types of germs on your hands.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: November 14, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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