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Clean hands are key to preventing illness

By: Thomas Osborne, M.D.

Itís the end of summer; time for school to start. The same kids who spent the last month playing outside at the beach or park will now sit at a desk with a couple dozen classmates. Theyíll share summer vacation stories, textbooks, and germs.


Whenever people congregate in one area Ė be it an airplane, boardroom, or classroom Ė germs follow.This is why itís common for kids (and their families) to catch a cold or run a fever during the first weeks of the school year.


Germs are literally everywhere. They live on school desks, locker handles, and TV remote controls. At home, the kitchen sink is often home to more germs than the bathroom. Other items with lots of germs include the toilet bowl, garbage can, bathroom doorknob, and the kitchen sponge. At work, phone receivers can contain a high number of bacteria. In public places, playground equipment, ATMís, and shopping cart handles are all germ carriers.


When it comes to germs, our bodyís own immune system is our first line of defense. In fact, exposure to germs helps build our immunity. Thatís why kids get sick more often than adults. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, illnesses help to build their immunity. While a certain amount of exposure may be a good thing, no one wants to get sick.


The sniffles donít necessarily have to be a successor to summer. Good infection control habits can go a long way to keeping germs at bay.


Many infections, like the common cold and the flu, are transmitted by respiratory secretions, which are inhaled or spread when your hands touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Many germs Ė viral, bacterial, and fungal -- can remain alive on most surfaces for days. When you touch a surface containing germs, they rub off onto your hands. Then, if you shake hands with someone, touch a doorknob, or rub your eyes, the germs transfer to that surface. Thatís how infections spread.


Itís been estimated that 80 percent of infections are spread by our hands. So it comes as no surprise that the simplest and most effective method for preventing infection is regular hand washing.


How often should you wash your hands? For most people, many times each day.


You should wash before and after changing a diaper, eating, drinking, preparing or serving food.

In addition, you should wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, going to the bathroom, touching your pets, taking out the garbage, cleaning the house, shopping, caring for someone who is sick, handling money, touching your ears, nose, mouth, or hair. 

Washing your hands doesnít mean a quick rinse under the cold water. In order to be effective, hand washing must be performed properly. Stand in front of the sink, without touching it with your hands or clothing. Turn on the water and adjust the temperature so it is warm to the touch. Wet your hands and wrists completely. Apply a small amount of liquid soap. Rub your hands together briskly for at least 20 seconds to work up a good lather on your wrists, palms, fingers, fingernails, and backs of hands. Rinse thoroughly. Use a paper towel to dry your hands. Then, use another paper towel to turn off the faucet.  

If you are on the go, and arenít able to wash your hands, you can use portable gel sanitizers.  
Your hands might be the cleanest on the block, but there will be plenty of germs still out there. In order to avoid them, donít share eating utensils or drinking glasses with others. If you sneeze or cough, try to do it into a tissue. If a tissue isnít available, sneeze into your sleeve. Whenever possible, get a good nightís sleep. When our bodies become run down from lack of sleep, we are more susceptible to illness. Make sure your immunizations are up-to-date. You might want to discuss the option of a flu shot with your physician. Flu shots typically become available in October.   No one wants a cold or the flu to be a part of his or her fall schedule. Although you canít avoid germs completely, you can develop habits to greatly decrease the chance that theyíll make you ill. The number one way for doing this is consistent and thorough hand washing. With a little effort you can enjoy the change of seasons -- and stay healthy at the same time.


Dr. Osborne is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.