Why is hand hygiene so important?
Posted on 8 April 2019
Homes, offices and even cars can be comfortable places for bacterial growth. The good news: regular handwashing remains your best defence against infection.
“The science is clear: washing your hands regularly remains the best way to guard against the spread of bacteria,” says Michelle Osborne, Infection Control Specialist at Mediclinic Panorama in Cape Town. Every day we are exposed to hundreds of bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa, which can cause illness and disease – here’s how to manage and minimise them in everyday life.
▶ WHAT ARE COMMON AREAS FOR BACTERIAL GROWTH AT HOME?
“Believe it or not, the kitchen sink and drain are the dirtiest areas in the house, followed by kitchen sponges and dish cloths,” says Osborne. These need to be washed and replaced frequently. “Bathroom taps and drains are another germ-friendly zone, so clean them regularly. Toothbrushes can collect bacteria, so remember to replace these every three months, and regularly soak them in mouthwash for 15 minutes between replacements.” It’s recommended that closing the toilet lid before flushing minimises spreading potential airborne germs.
▶ WHERE DO BACTERIA GATHER IN THE OFFICE?
“Computer keyboards, telephones and screens harbour germs, as they are often touched by unwashed hands,” says Osborne. “Plus, many people eat at their desks, which are not actually clean.” One recent study concluded that the typical toilet seat has 49 germs per square inch, while the average desktop has 21 000.
▶ WHAT ABOUT HANDBAGS AND MAKEUP BAGS?
Osborne says handbags are often forgotten danger zones, and recommends regular cleaning with a disinfectant. She also warns not to place your handbag in high-risk places, like bathroom floors. Bristles of makeup applicators are also attractive spaces for germs to grow – these items need to be cleaned weekly with soap and water. Some doctors recommend replacing these items every six months if you are prone to eye infections or allergies.
We touch our phones a minimum of 46 times a day, according to a Deloitte survey. And it’s believed cellphones may carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats.
▶IS MY CAR SAFE FROM GERMS?
“Yes, and the dashboard is the biggest culprit,” says Osborne. “People tend to place food on the dashboard thereby exposing it to germs coming through the air-con or heater. It’s something we don’t really think about.”
▶ WHAT ARE OTHER UNEXPECTED AREAS TO FOCUS ON?
Cellphones are dirtier than we think. The more we use them, the more we spread germs with our hands. Wipe your phone every few days with a microfibre cloth to reduce the bacterial load. Another germ harbour is the remote control – for anything: TVs, DVD players, gates, garage doors. “It is an item well used by the whole family, with clean, dirty or sticky hands. It’s also abused, sneezed on, stepped on and thrown around. Bacteria can live on remotes for at least 24 hours and can pass on a cold with one push of a button,” explains Osborne.
▶ SO HOW ARE BACTERIA MOST COMMONLY SPREAD?
“You are most at risk of picking up germs every time you come into contact with contaminated hands,” says Osborne. She cites Philip Tierno, a pathologist and author of The Secret Life of Germs, who says germs are spread by humans via the skin. This is why handwashing plays such a large role in reducing and preventing the spread of bacteria. Talking, laughing, coughing and sneezing also spread germs via the respiratory airway, while remnants from livestock on meat or fertilisers on vegetables can bring germs into the kitchen. Ensure fruit and vegetables are clean, and wash your hands regularly.
▶ WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO PREVENT GERMS SPREADING?
Osborne says it has been scientifically proven that handwashing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infection.
▶ WHICH DISEASES ARE COMMONLY SPREAD BY POOR HYGIENE?
Gastroenteritis is the most common and affects people of all ages; Hepatitis A is another. Common organisms that cause diarrhoea are escherichia coli, norovirus and salmonella. Staphylococcus aureus, found on unclean taps and handles, can cause pneumonia.
GENERAL TIPS FOR A CLEAN HOME
“Hand hygiene between tasks reduces the spread of infections,” reiterates Osborne. “Also use the correct cleaning products for the different surfaces in your home, and change linen and towels weekly. Manage household refuse correctly to avoid pest infestation, and improve living habits by simply cleaning up after oneself.” It’s all quite simple really, as good hygiene involves basic clean living, so germs don’t have a chance to take hold.
WORDS: KERI HARVEY
PHOTOGRAPH: GALLO/GETTY IMAGES