06 December 2017

Hand Hygiene: How to protect yourself this winter

Washing your hands regularly is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid becoming ill. In a health or social care environment hand washing is the single most important way to prevent the spread of infection. Head of Clinical Governance, Juliette Millard RN, MSc, takes a look in to what is really hiding on our hands.

During the winter months germs such as flu and norovirus are spread more easily

When temperatures plummet our natural immunity weakens allowing germs to spread more easily. The virus’ and bacteria that cause these diseases and many more are hiding on our hands; therefore, effective hand hygiene is vital to stop the spread of these illnesses especially in winter.

A staggering one in five of us don’t wash our hands.

The sad reality is that washing your hands properly, and regularly, could prevent the spread of bugs and diseases, picked up from bacteria, viruses and microorganisms from things we touch every day. Effective hand washing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.

Yet even those who do wash their hands regularly may not be doing it thoroughly enough to get rid of all the pesky bugs and germs.

In healthcare, hand decontamination is the most important hygiene factor

Hand decontamination has a dual role to protect both the patient and the healthcare worker, and prevents the spread of micro-organisms (germs) which can cause infection.

Hands may look clean but in reality, an invisible cocktail of micro-organisms are always present, some of which can be harmful to our health. Removal of micro-organisms through thorough cleaning is the most important factor in preventing the spread of diseases, and potentially harmful germs being transferred to other people.

Faecal matter and dangerous bacteria such as E. coli can be found on over a quarter of our hands.

Faeces from people and animals is the source of germs like E. coli, norovirus and Salmonella. These germs can easily get onto our hands after using the toilet, changing a nappy, stroking an animal or even handling raw meat. Some raw meats can have invisible traces of animal faeces on them, a single gram of animal faeces can contain a concoction of up to one trillion germs.

A toilet seat is probably cleaner that your mobile phone!

Bugs and germs can also be found in abundance on day to day objects such as mobile phones. You may be surprised to know that toilet seats can be cleaner than your mobile phone! Your phone harbours a secret cocktail of bacteria with each square inch of your phone containing up to 25,000 germs!  And it isn’t just mobile phones, it could be the phone you use at work, your keyboard, or even the pen you borrowed from a colleague.

How to wash your hands properly to protect yourself this winter

Knowing how to wash your hands effectively is essential in order to protect yourself, follow our steps

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands preferably using a clean paper towel or air dry them.

If you don’t have access to running water and soap then use an alcohol based hand sanitiser that contain at least 60% alcohol. Remember that hand sanitisers can reduce the number of germs on your hands but they don’t eliminate all germs and should be used in conjunction with washing your hands not as a substitute!

However, when it comes to health and social care settings, remember not one size fits all when it comes to the prevention of diseases and illnesses. It is important to do a quick analysis of the risks being encountered at that particular situation, then find out the right protocols to take within your work environment.

The Five Moments

The NHS and the WHO have developed an approach to hand hygiene called the Five Moments, this approach defines the key moments that healthcare professionals should wash their hands.

Five moments
  1. Before touching a patient
  2. Before clean/aseptic procedures
  3. After body fluid exposure/risk
  4. After touching a patient
  5. After touching patient surroundings

You can find more information on hand hygiene here.