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Hand Washing: A Powerful Antidote to Illness

Hand Washing: A Powerful Antidote to Illness Hand Washing: A Powerful Antidote to Illness

How many times have you and your child washed your hands today? You might not have given it much thought. It’s either part of your routine, done frequently without thinking, or maybe you don’t do it much at all. But as your pediatrician may have told you, hand washing may be the single most important act you and your child have for disease prevention.

Making hand washing a habit

As early as possible, get your child into the habit of washing their hands often and thoroughly. All day long, your child is exposed to bacteria and viruses—when touching a playmate, sharing toys, or petting the cat. Once their hands pick up these germs, they can quickly infect themselves by:

  • Rubbing their eyes

  • Touching their nose

  • Placing their fingers in their mouth

The whole process can happen in seconds, and cause an infection that can last for days, weeks, or even longer.

When to wash hands

Hand washing can stop the spread of infection. The key is to encourage your child to wash their hands throughout the day. For example, help or remind them to wash their hands:

  • Before eating (including snacks)

  • After a trip to the bathroom

  • Whenever they come in from playing outdoors

  • After touching an animal like a family pet

  • After sneezing or coughing if they cover their mouth

  • When someone in the household is ill

Studies on hand washing in public restrooms show that most people don't have very good hygiene habits. "Hand washing" may mean just a quick splash of water and perhaps a squirt of soap, but not nearly enough to get their hands clean.

Steps to proper hand washing

So what does a thorough hand washing involve? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following steps:

  • Wet your child’s hands.

  • Apply clean bar soap or liquid soap to the hands, and then place the bar on a rack where it can drain before the next hand washing.

  • Rub hands vigorously together. Scrub every surface completely.

  • Keep rubbing and scrubbing for 20 seconds to effectively remove the germs.

  • Rinse the hands completely, then dry them.

About antibacterial soaps

Drugstore shelves are full of trendy antibacterial soaps, but studies have shown that these antibacterial products are no better at washing away dirt and germs than regular soap. Some infectious disease experts have even suggested that by using antibacterial soaps, you may actually kill off normal bacteria and increase the chances that resistant bacteria may grow.

The best solution is to wash your child’s hands with warm water and ordinary soap that does not contain antibacterial substances (eg, triclosan). Regular use of soap and water is better than using waterless (and often alcohol-based) soaps, gels, rinses, and hand sanitizer rubs when your child’s hands are visibly dirty (and with children, there usually is dirt on the hands!). However, when there is no sink available (eg, the car), hand rubs can be a useful alternative.

How long to wash hands

Keep in mind that although 20 seconds of hand washing sounds like an instant, it is much longer than you think. Time yourself the next time you wash your hands. Watch your child while they're washing their hands to make sure they are developing good hygiene behaviors. Pick a song that lasts for 20 seconds and sing it while you wash. Encourage your child to wash their hands not only at home, but also at school, at friends’ homes and everywhere else. It’s an important habit to get into, and hopefully one that’s hard to break.

More Information

Last Updated
Immunizations &Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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