Hand hygiene: the germs you carry

Posted on 19 May 2016

You’re going to want to wash your hands after reading this. Researchers have found that the human hand harbours – wait for it – at least 3 000 different bacteria, belonging to more than 100 different species.

In their study, researchers at the University of Colorado detected and identified more than 4 700 different bacteria species across 102 human hands in the study, with only five species shared among all 51 participants. In fact, there are so many different germs on a person’s hands, you could actually tell which objects have been touched by someone, just by looking at the bacteria left behind.

Fingernails contain the most germs, including bacteria, fungi and yeasts. The germs found lurking on human hands – and in the gunk under human fingernails – include a handful of potentially harmful specimens, like hepatitis A (where symptoms include jaundice and diarrhoea), Shigella (which can cause diarrhoea), pseudomonas (which infects wounds), streptococci (which causes throat infections) and streptococcus Pneumoniae (which can cause pneumonia).

Another relatively common germ carried on human hands is haemophilus influenzae, which is known to be one of the many possible causes of the highly-contagious condition called ‘pink eye’.

Doing exactly that – washing your hands, regularly and carefully – is one of the best things you can do to promote your all-round health and wellbeing. ‘Hand hygiene is the all-inclusive term used to refer to the removal of visible dirt and microorganisms from the hands,’ says nursing professional Christine Smedley, infection prevention and control coordinator at Mediclinic Southern Africa. ‘This can be accomplished using either soap and running water or an alcohol-based hand rub. Some of the most important aspects of reducing the risk of transmission of microorganisms are to perform hand hygiene when indicated, using the correct technique and applying basic principles for this to be effective.’

As medical practitioners, Christine and her Mediclinic colleagues have to pay special attention to their hand hygiene, knowing that the risk of cross-infection is particularly high in a healthcare setting. ‘According to the Clean Care is Safer Care Programme of the World Health Organization (WHO), there are five key moments when hand hygiene should be performed in a healthcare setting, either with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water if hands are visibly soiled,’ she says.

The WHO recommends that healthcare workers clean their hands before clean/aseptic procedures, after body fluid exposure/risk, before touching a patient, after touching a patient, and after touching patient surroundings. Those last three also apply to you, if you’re visiting a loved one in hospital.

Christine adds that the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have another, longer list of recommendations for performing hand hygiene by the general public. ‘These,’ she says, ‘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 nappies 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; and after touching garbage.’


Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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