Washing hands does save lives

Doctor explains dangers of dirty hands, right way to get them clean

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – What most people fail to realize is that something as simple as washing their hands is the first line of defense against germs. It's something so routine, but it can save your life and others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, increasing hand washing in school is a win for everyone.  Students and teachers are healthier and then kids take their hygiene knowledge home to parents and other siblings. News4Jax wanted a child's perspective and was given the opportunity to talk with young students at Discovery Montessori School in Jacksonville Beach.

"Why do you wash your hands?"

"Because I don't want to get germs in my hands," said the first student. "If you see something on them you need to wash them before you touch anything else like your brother or sister," added a second. "The germs might go into your eye, your mouth, nose, and then you might get sick," explained a third student.

"How do you wash your hands?"

"You turn on the sink, you soak your hands, you turn it off, you use soap, you turn it back on and then you soak your hands and dry with a warm towel," explained another. "You scrub, you rub both sides because there are always germs on both sides of the hands."

Failure to wash your hands can have dangerous consequences:

There's a danger to yourself and others if you don't wash your hands.

"Imagine that happens to a newborn baby or to a child that has congenital heart disease. I've seen those children get viruses, what we call Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV for short, because it's so hard to say, or the flu virus. And those children will actually die from those infections because their immune systems are compromised or they don't have a normal heart and lungs," warned Dr. Alva Roche Green, a family medicine and pediatric physician with Mayo Clinic Jacksonville.

Green has seen the dangers first hand.

"Nothing is harder than looking into the face of that parent of that child when you've done everything you can for 15 or 20 minutes to try and resuscitate a child who's respiratory status is declining from something as simple as RSV, the common cold or the flu. It's devastating," said Green.

Green says people may not understand the importance of washing their hands simply because it hasn't affected them.

"I guarantee you that the parents of that child that I took care of 15 or 20 years ago, they remember that, I bet you they wash their hands a little bit better," Green added.

Proper hand washing:

What people may not realize as well, there is a systematic way to properly and effectively wash their hands.

"Most people are doing it wrong," said Green. "It's very simple." 

Green says you first want to wet your hands. The soap doesn't do any good if your hands are dry because part of the point of using the water is it's going to wash things away.

"It's got to get into the crevices and all your finger prints and all the divots in there," Green explained. 

Green goes on to say that  you want to wash for 15 to 20 seconds, which doesn't seem like a long time, but it is a lot longer than most people realize. 

"You want to wash the front of your hands, the back of your hands, your finger nails," she explained. "You want to get in all the cracks and crevices that we have. And if you just put soap on, wash and go, you're not getting everything that's in there."

The one thing you do not have to worry about when washing your hands is the kind of soap you are using or the temperature of the water.

"It doesn't matter if the water's hot or cold. It doesn't matter if it's an anti-bacterial soap or a regular soap. Studies have shown that there is not a significant improvement in the reduction of bacteria on the hands, whether the soap is routine regular soap, or anti-bacterial," explained Green.

Step-by-step (CDC):

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

  • By washing your hands the correct way, doctors say you can protect yourself from several infectious diseases. According to the CDC, researchers in London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented. 

    The CDC also reports that about 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, the top two killers of young children around the world.

    Use of hand sanitizers:

    If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol to clean hands.

    "It is a good quick way and they do decrease the amount of bacteria on your hands, Green explained. What they don't do is what the water does. The water washes it away."

    Green added if you use a non-alcohol based hand sanitizer, it's not going to be as good.

    "That's why  in hospitals, we foam in, foam out with sanitizers. We wash our hands, we have infection control practices,  we want to minimize the infections of the patients we take care of," Green said.

    Editorial note: News4Jax would like to thank Charlie Seraphin for his contributions to this story.