Stopping COVID-19: It starts under the faucet

Stopping COVID-19: It starts under the faucet

Washing your hands doesn't mean simply slapping them under the water and adding some soap. Properly washing hands can help limit the effectiveness of COVID-19, as well as the spread of other germs.


Editor’s note: This is the first of a 3-part series with Dr. DJ McFadden, former health commissioner of Holmes County, about preventative methods against COVID-19 and more as we move into respiratory illness season.

Practicing good hand hygiene is instrumental in the ability to fend off any kind of germ or virus, and while nothing is ever 100% guaranteed, properly washing one’s hands as much as possible without creating a situation where the hands become chapped and cracked — thus opening a door for germs — is good advice to fend off any type of sickness, whether viral or bacterial.

While keeping oft-handled things like door handles, TV remotes and phones clean and disinfected is good, nothing can replace the commonsense practice of washing one’s hands.

“Hand hygiene, not sneezing into the air, covering your cough in your sleeve, distancing and wearing masks are all important factors of preventing the spread of disease,” said Dr. D.J. McFadden, MD MPH at Community Hospice in New Philadelphia and Holmes County health commissioner for a decade.

Hand hygiene is mainly to prevent bacterial diseases, but McFadden said viruses like COVID-19 also can take place when people’s hands come in contact with the virus, then touch their face, specifically their mouth and eyes. Thus, hand hygiene plays a crucial role in people’s health.

“Most people don’t wash their hands correctly,” McFadden said. “Who is going to wash their hands like a surgeon every time? But it is important that we wash our hands before we eat, after we come in from outside, after we sneeze or cough, or anytime they might get contaminated.”

McFadden said simply following some simple procedural rules of thumb will lead to a better quality hand-washing experience. He said wetting the hands first and then applying the soap is the first step. Next, scrubbing every surface of the hand is critical and one that many people fail to adhere to.

“People tend to wash their palms and kind of gloss over the rest of their hands,” McFadden said. “We need to make sure everything from the back of our hand to our fingernails and in between our fingers get lathered up and then rinsed.”

McFadden then suggested using a towel or the forearm to turn the faucet off because germs can linger there.

With the knowledge of washing hands being instrumental in fending off COVID-19, the real question is what hand-washing techniques and practices are correct?

It seems likely that by now everyone has heard about washing for at least 20 seconds, but what should accompany that 20 seconds?

Here are some key tips to creating the nearly perfect hand-washing experience:

Is it more effective to wash your hands with warm water than cold water?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, water temperature does not affect microbe removal. The most important thing is to use clean, running water, and for most people, the comfort level of a nice, warm flow of water is preferable but not necessary.

“The water shouldn’t be super-hot because it can damage your skin,” McFadden said. “The soap is the important thing. The detergent breaks down cell walls and can break down some of the molecules on a virus while also preventing things from easily sticking to our skin. So the soap is there to kill germs but to also loosen things up, and the use of water actually washes those things away.”

Which is preferable when it comes to hand-washing, quality or quantity?

The CDC recommends washing hands for 20 seconds, but it doesn’t have to be that long, as long as a person properly cleans all areas of their hands well, including palms, backs of hands, between the fingers and under the nails.

“There is a point of diminishing returns,” McFadden said. “If you do it right, you’ll still get benefit from washing longer than 20 seconds, but of greater importance is washing correctly. A person can do an effective job in that 20-second time period if they do it right.”

Is it OK to wash your hands with water alone?

That’s a no-no. It’s better to use soap and water. Not only does soap help remove soil and germs, but also it’s been shown people scrub their hands more thoroughly when using soap.

Washing your hands helps prevent antibiotic resistance.

Yes, build up that resistance. The CDC said washing hands helps prevent respiratory and diarrhea-related illnesses, which, in turn, reduces the use of antibiotics that are often unnecessarily prescribed for these issues. Hand-washing also may help prevent individuals from getting sick from germs that are already resistant to antibiotics.

Is using hand sanitizer just as effective as washing your hands?

If soap and water are unavailable, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. However, soap and water are always preferred because they are able to remove certain types of germs and harmful chemicals. They also are more effective than hand sanitizer at cleaning heavily soiled or greasy hands.

“Hand sanitizer is solely killing,” McFadden said. “And it is important to allow that to dry fully to kill everything. Hand washing has the added movement of the water that physically washes things off your hand.”

Is letting your hands air dry a good substitute for towels?

Research shows drying hands with paper towels results in the removal of additional bacteria, compared to when hands are air dried. Using a hand towel properly to dry hands takes about 10 seconds.

Do you have to dry your hands after washing?

Well, you certainly don’t have to dry your hands, but it is highly recommended by the CDC because moisture facilitates bacterial transfer. If a person’s hands are wet, they are more likely to transfer bacteria to other surfaces. By the same token, if their hands contain no harmful bacteria but they use wet hands to handle another surface like a door handle, that moisture on their hands will facilitate the transfer of bacteria from the handle to the hand.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time to wash your hands properly, as long as you do it correctly,” McFadden said. “It is far better to take the time and wash rather than regret it later when you’re sick.”

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