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Wash 'Em, Wash 'Em Good

The science has been clear for years: Washing your hands can cut down on being sick, but we don’t do it enough. One study estimates that if everyone did it regularly, we could save a million lives each year. What’s more, when you don’t wash your hands, problems can come up.

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You Pass on Germs

If you don't wash your hands when they're germy, you could pass those germs to friends and family and get them sick. If you get them on an object -- like a doorknob or handrail -- you could infect people you don't even know. Make sure to lather up after you use the bathroom. A single gram of human feces can contain a trillion germs.

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You Can Get Sick, Too

All those germs can get to you, too. Your hands can carry germs into your eyes and your mouth from places you don't even want to think about. And the illnesses the germs can cause could be serious. Washing your hands with soap (which is much more effective than sanitizer or water alone) can protect you from illnesses like diarrhea, respiratory infections, and more.

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Kids Miss a Lot of School

Often, kids don't wash their hands. They can get sick from all those germs they don't scrub away, which causes them to miss school. Handwashing education in schools can lower absenteeism from gastrointestinal problems by up to 57%.

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You Miss a Lot of Work

Each year, the flu costs Americans about 17 million missed workdays. That translates to $7 billion a year in sick days and undone work. One of the ways you can avoid getting the flu is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

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You Lose Money

Americans spend about $4.6 billion each year fighting the flu. That amount includes doctor visits, hospital stays, and medicine. So washing your hands could also help save you money.

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Your Bowels Will Give You Trouble

Diarrhea can be a symptom of a larger disease like cholera or typhoid. Diarrhea is the second-leading cause of death among children under 5. About 1.5 million kids die each year because of diarrheal diseases, most of them in Africa and Southeast Asia. One study found that washing hands with soap can prevent about 4 out of every 10 cases of diarrhea.

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Eyes -- Yours and Others' -- Could Be Affected

Washing your hands has been shown to prevent two far-reaching eye diseases. Pinkeye, picked up by 6 million Americans each year, can be caused by infection, as can trachoma, a bacterial infection that is the leading cause of blindness in the world.

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Skin Infections

Staphylococcus bacteria -- staph, for short -- are germs often found on your skin and in your nostrils. If those germs get into an open wound, they can cause skin infections or move deep into your skin and soft tissues. From there, they can travel into joints, bones, and organs. They can even cause blood poisoning. Staph is the leading cause of infection in U.S. healthcare facilities. Washing your hands with soap and water helps keep them from traveling. So does covering those open wounds.

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When faced with an infection, your body's immune system sometimes can turn on itself in the form of a serious illness called sepsis. It affects 1.7 million Americans each year. Nearly 270,000 of those die. One of the most important ways to prevent sepsis is good hand washing, including both before and after caring for a sick person.

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How to Wash Your Hands

The procedure is:

  1. Water
  2. Lather
  3. Scrub for at least 20 seconds
  4. Rinse
  5. Dry 

Make sure to wash up:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before you eat
  • After you use the bathroom (or help a toddler)
  • After petting your pet
  • When you sneeze
  • Anywhere, anytime germs may gather

A hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol is OK, but soap is better.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 11/19/2019 Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 19, 2019


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CDC: "Hygiene Fast Facts," "When and How to Wash Your Hands," "Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings," "Show Me the Science - Why Wash Your Hands?" "Pinworm Infection FAQs," "Pink Eye." "Staph Infections Can Kill," "Sepsis."

Journal of Environmental Health: "Hand Washing Practices in a College Town Environment."

Global Handwashing Partnership: "Why Handwashing?"

Jamison, DT. Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Mayo Clinic: "Hand-washing: Do's and Don'ts."

Emory University Global Health Primer: "What Is Diarrheal Diseases?"

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Eye Infections: Be Careful Now or Regret It Later."

Mayo Clinic: "Trachoma."

NYU Langone Health: "Preventing Staphylococcal Infections."

Sepsis Alliance: "Definition of Sepsis."

University of Rochester Medical Center: "Septicemia."

NIH: "Conjunctivitis."

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 19, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.