This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Electronic Highways

Hand-washing 101

Published: January 13, 2011

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), keeping hands clean is the best way to prevent infection and illness. The CDC further notes that hand hygiene practices are key prevention tools in health care settings, in day care facilities, in schools and public institutions, and for the safety of our food. Hand-washing can prevent infection and illness from spreading from family member to family member and, sometimes, throughout a community. So, let us reflect on this simple, yet powerful public health weapon.

While hand-washing as a health care standard is universally accepted today, this was not always the case. In the early 1840s, an American physician, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, advocated hand-washing to prevent the spread of childbed fever. His colleagues met this notion with disdain. Later in the 1840s, in Europe, Dr. I.P. Simmelweis also was encouraging his colleagues to wash their hands before seeing patients. He even issued a hand-washing mandate. Simmelweis was greeted with hostility for his ideas and eventually was fired from his position. For a complete history of hand-washing, visit the Medical University of South Carolina’s Web page. You also can visit the History of Medicine collection in the Health Sciences Library to explore the evolution of hand-washing.

While we now know the importance of hand-washing in fighting the spread of germs and infection, how have attitudes and behaviors changed? A recent hand-washing study by the American Society for Microbiology and the American Cleaning Institute® finds that hand-washing is at all time high. This observational study, conducted in August 2010, found that 85 percent of adults washed their hands after using the restroom. By gender, 77 percent of men washed their hands in contrast to 93 percent of the women observed in the study.

According to the CDC, people should wash their hands:

  • Before and after preparing food.
  • Before and after eating food.
  • After using the toilet.
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet.
  • Before and after tending to someone who is sick.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • After handling an animal or animal waste.
  • After handling garbage.
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound.

If you are looking to find the best hand-washing technique—be aware, it is not a quick rinse—there are several videos on the Web:

For more in depth research on hand-washing, the UB Libraries have a wealth of information. There are numerous health sciences databases, such as PubMed, MEDLINE, CINAHL or Evidence Based Medicine Reviews.

Lastly, do you know someone who needs a less-than-subtle reminder to wash his or her hands? Take a look at the CDC’s e-cards.

—Linda Hasman, Health Sciences Library