Why Hand Washing Matters

Featured Article, Growth and Development, Health and Safety
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Your child’s hands get into all sorts of germy things. From playgrounds and bathroom breaks to finger painting, shared toys and post-sneeze nose-wiping, your child’s hands come in contact with a host of germs and bacteria. And if all that icky stuff isn’t properly washed away, your little one could spend the winter in the doctor’s office for yet another illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 80 percent of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch. “What’s more, some 49,000 people die from the flu or flu-like illness each year, and another 5,000 people die from food-borne illness each year,” says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., a pediatrician in Westlake Village, Calif. “Many of those deaths could be prevented with proper hand washing.”

Hand washing is the easiest way and most effective way to prevent many viral and bacterial infections, agrees Danelle Fisher, M.D., vice chair of pediatrics at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “Young children touch everything and then often put their hands in their mouths, so they are very prone to infections that spread by touching an affected surface.”

Not only can hand washing help prevent and reduce the risk of a child developing an infection or catching a virus, it can help keep their parents healthy, too.

Dr. Fisher says kids’ hands could leave behind germs and bacteria they pick up outside of the house on doorknobs, phones and other surfaces. Some of the germs left behind can contain traces of feces (if a child doesn’t wash properly after going to the bathroom). The problem is that many children (and their parents, too!) aren’t washing correctly.

How to wash

A study from the University of Arizona says about 85 percent of people aren’t employing proper hand-washing techniques.

“Most kids skimp on the soap and water,” says Altmann. “Compounding the problem is parents don’t always know what constitutes a good wash.”

Washing your hands with soap and clean water is best, says Josephine Dlugopolski-Gach, MD, pediatrician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “If that is not available, kids can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.” Just make sure to teach your child to rub it into his or her hands until it’s dry.

What’s more, Dlugopolski-Gach suggests teaching your kids these steps to ensure their hands are clean every time they leave the sink.

  1. First, wet hands with warm, clean, running water, and apply soap. If using liquid soap, an amount about the size of a dime is recommended. If using bar soap, kids should rub the bar around in their hands for 5 to 10 seconds.
  2. Next, rub hands together to make a lather. Be sure to scrub between fingers, under rings and both sides of the hand (top and palm).
  3. Continue to rub for 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse hands well under running water, and dry using a clean towel or by simply air drying. Don’t dry on clothing as that may have come in contact with germs or bacteria.

When to wash

“I think it’s rare that a person shouldn’t wash their hands,” says Dlugopolski-Gach, “but there are definitely times kids and their parents should absolutely wash their hands.” Those include:

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing a diaper or cleaning up after someone who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching an animal or an animal’s toy
  • After touching animal food
  • After touching the garbage
  • After playing outside
  • Any time dirt (mud, paint, etc.) is visible on hands

Remembering to wash

Can’t seem to get your kids to stop at the sink? Dr. Fisher says kids will wash their hands if they think it is fun.

“One trick is to sing a song every time they wash or even to make up a hand-washing song,” says Dr. Fisher. Have them sing the alphabet, “Happy Birthday” or another song they know and like so that they will stay at the sink for at least 20 seconds.

Also, kids like to mimic adults, so we should lead by example. “As a parent, wash your hands every time you would like your child to do so,” adds Dr. Fisher, “and remind them the importance of hand washing.”

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