The Importance of Hand Washing for Senior Hygiene
The importance of handwashing is no secret. This classic germ-prevention trick is more important now than ever, especially for individuals over age 60.
This week is National Hand Washing Awareness Week. While it has a special place in the spotlight this week, hand washing is essential every day.
Older adults often have weakened immune systems, which makes them extra susceptible to COVID-19 and other infections. Senior hygiene is crucial, both during the pandemic and every day.
Washing your hands is always important, but all handwashing is not created equal. Time spent scrubbing, the technique used, and many other factors can change your process's effectiveness.
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How Does Hand Washing Work?
We've all heard that hand washing is the secret weapon against illnesses, but how do soap and water affect germs?
According to Dr. Daniel Pastula, a UCHealth neuro-infectious disease expert, soap is small but mighty and can protect against most diseases better than hand sanitizer.
Even the most inexpensive hand soap disrupts the bond between pathogens (including COVID-19) and your skin. While the soap is busy coating the germ in suds, the water knocks them right off your hands, leaving you with truly clean hands after 20 seconds.
Why Should I Wash My Hands?
According to the CDC, handwashing is so important because of how often we touch our faces. When we touch our eyes and mouth, we are giving germs a one-way ticket into our system.
Hand washing is vital in a few other ways:
- By washing your hands, you avoid transferring germs into any food and drink that you touch, which keeps you and anyone you serve safe.
- Frequent hand washing prevents spreading pathogens, which can happen when you touch surfaces like handrails, light switches, and doorknobs.
Dirty hands can spread a variety of illnesses through an entire community, including:
- Respiratory illnesses
Washing your hands isn't just crucial for your health, but it prevents the spread of illness to other people. Think of your loved ones the next time you lather up to give your hands a good cleaning.
What Is the Best Way to Wash My Hands?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's extra important for everyone, especially seniors, to be washing their hands.
We should all be cleaning our hands before and after:
- Touching your face
- Touching your mask
- Entering a public place
- Interacting with any high-touch surfaces like gas pumps, doorknobs, desks, cash registers, etc.
When in doubt, wash your hands. If you think you may have touched something that could be dirty, lather those hands up. It's better to be safe than sorry.
The CDC recommends a five-step system to wash your hands:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water. It doesn't matter much what the temperature is, as long as the water is clean, so go with whatever makes you comfortable.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap. Don't forget the back of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Not exactly sure how long that is? Sing the tune to "Happy Birthday" twice to act as a makeshift timer.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel, or air dry them.
These five steps to handwashing seem simple enough, so let's get out there and scrub-a-dub-dub to show these illnesses what we're made of!
Can Washing Your Hands Too Much Be Bad for You?
After hearing about how important washing your hands is, you might wonder if there can be too much of a good thing.
In the late 1980's, a theory was proposed that the cleaning of hands could lead to weakened immune systems because of lack of exposure to common germs. You may have heard this theory and wondered if you were doing more harm than good with washing your hands.
The reality is that germs always surround us. There are plenty of pathogens around us to keep our immune systems strong, while we protect ourselves from the nastier ones by washing our hands.
However, there is one detriment to washing your hands frequently that most of us have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic: dry hands.
Depending on your skin type, you could be experiencing a range of consequences from minorly irritated hands all the way to severely cracked, bleeding hands.
To solve this pesky problem, we recommend adding a sixth step to your hand washing routine: add a layer of hand cream.
Especially during winter months, your hands might be getting chapped, flakey, or irritated from all the stimulation.
Luckily, there are a few quick tips to lay this issue to rest:
- Use mild, fragrance-free hand soap to avoid irritation.
- Swap your lotions for a cream or ointment.
- When in doubt, Vaseline is the most effective treatment available.
- Consider using a humidifier at night to raise the moisture level of the air while you sleep.
While you might be experiencing dry hands, try not to minimize your handwashing, as your health is the priority!
Is Hand Sanitizer a Good Replacement for Hand Washing?
You may have noticed the hand sanitizer aisles have been empty for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, soap aisles remained full in many areas.
This phenomenon is perplexing epidemiologists everywhere because soap and water are far more effective in preventing illness than hand sanitizer.
While soap and water fully clean the hand and removes germs, hand sanitizer simply neutralizes pathogens.
Additionally, hand sanitizer might fail to eliminate the following:
- Harmful chemicals
However, if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, as that level of alcohol is best for killing germs.
When using hand sanitizer, be sure to cover all surfaces of the hand, rather than just the palms, as germs can be sneaking around all over.
If you have the choice, pick a good hand washing over hand sanitizer, but it's better to use sanitizer than nothing at all.
Everyone, including seniors, should remember the importance of handwashing during the pandemic, flu season, and beyond. Even if you don't want to wash your hands for your benefit, remember how quickly illness can spread through your community and to your loved ones.
Celebrate National Hand Washing Awareness Week by remembering your five steps and belting out "Happy Birthday" twice while you wash your hands. After all, your health is the greatest thing worth protecting and celebrating.
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