print this page

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Hand-Washing

December 08, 2011

GREENFIELD -- Winter is almost upon us, and with it, the tendency for people to stay indoors where germs and viruses can easily move from victim to victim.  The single most important thing you can do to prevent flu, colds, and many other infectious diseases is to wash your hands with soap and water.  It’s also the most inexpensive deterrent.

Mary Ellen Ahearn, RN, infection control coordinator at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, offers advice to help people avoid illness during this cold and flu season. 

“If everyone would focus more on performing hand hygiene properly, we could greatly reduce the spread of cold and flu viruses, and many other diseases and infections.” Ahearn said.  “Though a very simple activity, hand washing has the potential to save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention.  I still remember my mother telling me to wash my hands when I was younger.”

The Center for Disease Control recommends washing hands for at least 20 seconds; that’s about how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” or the “Alphabet Song” twice.

“Everyone – children and adults alike – can find a little song to hum when washing hands to be sure they wash long enough,” Ahearn suggested.  “You don’t have to watch a second hand to figure out how long to wash.”

At Baystate Franklin Medical Center, employees actually participated in a contest to create hand-washing lyrics to popular tunes.  The winning lyrics were printed on posters which hung near sinks and hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the hospital.  Ahearn recalled, “Lyrics such as, ‘I’m gonna wash those germs right off of my hands,’ (tune of I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right out of my Hair or ‘Hey you, go wash your hands,’ (tune of Hey, Jude) reminded employees, patient and visitors, in a fun way, how to properly wash their hands.

“Remembering to wash your hands is the first part,” said Ahearn; “Knowing the most effective technique is the key, though.”  The CDC recommends the following technique:

§         Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.

§         Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

§         Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds.

§         Rinse your hands well under running water.

§         Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.


Ahearn also recommends drying your hands, then using a paper towel to turn off the faucet.  “Faucets, particularly in public places, can be a harbinger of unhealthy germs,” she warned.

“When to wash your hands is the other important factor in infection control,” said Ahearn.  “Many people remember to wash after using the toilet, but there are many other disease spreading occurrences.”   CDC recommendations include:

§         Before, during and after preparing food

§         Before eating food

§         Before and after caring for someone who is sick.

§         Before and after treating a cut or wound

§         After using the toilet

§         After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet

§         After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing

§         After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste

§         After touching garbage.


“Even if you don’t have soap and water available at times when you know you should wash your hands, hand sanitizers can generally be made available,” Ahearn said.  “Keep them in your car, with camping equipment, in a diaper bag, on your desk at work – or any other areas where you might encounter unsanitary conditions where a sink with running water is not available.”

She cautioned, “If you choose to use an alcohol based hand sanitizer, be sure it contains at least 60% alcohol, and remember to dispose of it when it passes the expiration date.” She also noted that hand sanitizers do not remove dirt.

It is important to moisturize your hands no matter how you perform hand hygiene.  Use hand lotions at least four times a day to help keep your skin properly hydrated. Ahearn suggested.  “Keeping your hands moisturized can also prevent cuts and rashes that, in turn, become germ-carriers.”

Ahearn concluded, “If you remember to wash or sanitize your hands frequently, follow the proper techniques for washing, and keep your hands moisturized, you will be playing a major role in the prevention of diseases such as flu, colds and pneumonia during the months ahead.”

For more information on proper hand-washing techniques, go to the Center for Disease Control website,