Flu season may be over, but the need for frequent hand washing never ends. Germs that cause colds, ear and eye infections, strep throat, diarrhea and a host of other diseases flourish throughout the year. Routinely washing hands with soap and water is the most effective way to avoid sickness.

How to Wash Your Hands

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

Rub hands together to make a lather and scrub, including the backs, between fingers and under nails.

Continue rubbing hands for at least 20 seconds (hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice).

Rinse hands well under running water. Dry hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

Most Americans say they know that they should wash their hands after sneezing, coughing and handling pets, before eating or handling food and after going to the toilet. However, two out of three people also admit that they don’t always do it. This increases their likelihood for contracting an illness and for giving it to others.

Outbreaks of illnesses like salmonellosis, hepatitis A and shigellosis often begin when, after using the toilet, someone does not wash their hands or does not wash them properly. Upon handling food, shaking hands or touching something like a doorknob or a keyboard – on some surfaces, bacteria and viruses can live for months – this person passes these germs on to others.

Unwashed or poorly washed hands are factors in one in four of the food-borne illnesses that sicken 48 million Americans and kill 3,000 every year. Poor hand hygiene is also an issue in health care settings. Every year, hospital-acquired infections (HIAs) caused by bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), staphylococci (Staph) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) sicken two million hospital patients of which some 99,000 die. Inadequate hand washing on the part of doctors, nurses and other health care workers is behind these statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), half of the time that they should be washing their hands – for example, moving from one patient examination to another or before putting on and after removing surgical gloves – health care workers do not wash. If you are receiving treatment in a hospital, don’t be afraid to remind health care workers who are caring for you to wash their hands first.

Sanitizer vs. Soap

For overall hand cleanliness, plain soap and water is preferable to hand sanitizers. In addition to germs, soap and water washes away other contaminants like surface dirt and food residue. Research finds that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than plain soap and water and, in fact, may contribute to drug-resistant bacteria.

How to Use Hand Sanitizers

Apply the product to the palm of one hand.

Rub your hands together.

Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

Sanitizers react to germs only; they do not remove dirt and grime. While they can reduce the amount of germs on the hands, they cannot make the hands germ-free. Hand sanitizers do not prevent infections from MRSA, E. coli, Salmonella, flu, or from other bacteria and viruses, and the FDA warns consumers not to purchase products that claim otherwise. Hand sanitizers are helpful when soap and water is not available, but only if they contain an alcohol content of at least 60 percent.

Washing your hands is the best and easiest way to keep from getting sick. Wash them frequently and correctly, and you and others around you will enjoy better health.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]