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Hand Washing

Why is hand washing important?

Hand washing can prevent infection. It can stop the spread of viruses and bacteria from one person or object to another. Hand washing has been shown to saves lives.

We all have many bacteria on our skin at all times. Some of them can cause serious, even life-threatening infections. Hand washing helps prevent the spread of these bacteria to other people.

Hand washing is important at home, at school, at work and in other public places. It is especially important in healthcare facilities--from clinics and hospitals to nursing homes. When you are a patient at a hospital, you are at risk for infection from your visitors and also from bacteria in the hospital. Bacteria can be on equipment, furniture, floors, and possibly the hands of the staff, including the doctors. Some bacteria may cause infections that are hard to treat because the bacteria are resistant to many antibiotics. Resistance means that it is hard for antibiotic medicine to kill the bacteria and stop the infection.

If you are caring for someone who is sick, especially if some of their body fluids touch you, wash yourself with soap and water.

Hand washing is also a very important part of good hygiene at daycare facilities.

If you don’t have soap and water, you can clean your hands by wiping them well with an alcohol-based gel hand cleaner (hand sanitizer).

What is good hand-washing?

Here’s how to wash your hands well:

  • Wet your hands with clean running water and soap. Use warm water if it is available.
  • Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub all surfaces.
  • Keep rubbing your hands together for 20 seconds. Need a way to time it? Imagine singing "Happy Birthday" twice through to a friend!
  • Rinse your hands well under running water.

Dry your hands using a paper towel or air dryer. If possible, use your paper towel to turn off the faucet. Also use it to open the door if you are in a public restroom.

How should I use a hand sanitizer?

Hand sanitizers, which are available as gels, foams, or liquids, must be at least 60% alcohol in order to do a good job of killing germs. To use them you should:

  • Put the sanitizer on the palm of one hand.
  • Rub your hands together.
  • Rub the sanitizer over all of the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

When should I wash my hands?

Wash your hands before:

  • eating and drinking
  • preparing food
  • brushing your teeth
  • taking care of a sick person or an older adult

Wash your hands after:

  • coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose
  • going to the bathroom
  • changing diapers
  • touching public surfaces such as doorknobs, railings, telephones, elevator buttons, and grocery carts
  • handling trash and garbage
  • handling and caring for animals
  • caring for a cut or wound--yours or another person’s
  • taking care of a sick person or elder

If you would like to watch a CDC video on how patients, visitors, and staff can keep their hands clean in the hospital see: This video also shows how to ask your caregivers to clean their hands.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-02-23
Last reviewed: 2010-02-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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