Fighting the Flu: Our 411 On Hand Washing
Last week we shared a viral video posted by nurse Katherine Lockler, who gave her listeners an earful about proper hygiene practices during this particularly terrible flu season (if you missed the video, you can still watch it here). According to the World Health Organization 7–10% of patients will acquire at least one healthcare-associated infection whilst under treatment, most of which could be prevented with simple hand hygiene. We all know that washing our hands helps immensely, but some of the particulars may be foggy. How long should you wash? What temperature? What’s better—soap and water or hand sanitizers? So in the spirit of battling the flu season, here’s the science behind the washing of hands.
Wash Long, Wash Often – If you’re washing your hands less than seven times a day, you’re not washing enough, according to the Global Hygiene Council. And just splashing them around in water isn’t doing you any favors. Professor John Oxford, Chairman of the Global Hygiene Council and Professor of Virology at Queen Mary College, suggests singing Happy Birthday twice while washing your hands to make sure you’re spending an appropriate amount of time on them.
Hotter Isn’t Healthier – It might seem like hotter water would do a better job of killing germs than warm or cold water, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Hot water can kill germs, but this happens at a temperature far too high for our bare skin.
“There is no one best water temperature to wash one’s hands,” says Dr. Samuel Grief of the University of Illinois. “If your hands are really dirty and greasy, use of warm to hot water will do a better job of trapping dirt and grease within the soap, allowing for a more thorough cleaning.”
Go For The Lather, Not The Label – Labels make a lot of promises, but for the most part, the only thing that really matters about your soap is whether it can work up a lather. Even soaps that claim to be antibacterial aren’t necessarily any better than regular soaps. The reason for this is that soap lather essentially works as a vehicle—it traps the dirt and germs stirred up by scrubbing and helps carry them off your hands and down the drain.
Using Hand Sanitizers In A Pinch – There’s no substitute for soap and water, but in a pinch, hand sanitizers can be helpful. They don’t kill all types of germs, they’re less effective if your hands are greasy or dirty, and they need to be at least 60% alcohol, but a good hand sanitizer is still better than nothing. A good scrub with a sanitizer can quickly eliminate a host of microbes, but only if you use enough and only if you allow it to dry (no wiping it off!)
Of course, as nurses you should be more than familiar with hand washing (though not every hospital earns a perfect score on this, so there’s always room for improvement). And new advances in hand hygiene are moving forward every day. One such advance is the SureWash system—a video display that monitors every movement of your hands during hand washing and alerts you to any spots you might have missed. But not all of us have a computer double checking our hygiene, so this flu season, pay extra close attention to those soap and water moments. We’re still battling the flu season, and we need you all on the front lines!
(And just because you might be a hand washing pro doesn’t mean your friends, family, and patients couldn’t learn a thing or two, so be sure and share these tips with them as well.)