With swine flu dominating the headlines, there's lots of talk about how best to protect ourselves from this and other infectious diseases. Health experts continue to repeat what our mothers always told us: Wash your hands. It's among the most effective steps we can take.
Most of us hear this and think "yep, check, I do that." But in fact, too often we fall short when it comes to hand-washing and needlessly expose ourselves to germs and illness that might have been avoided with a bit more diligence.
Below are seven common hand-washing mistakes. How many do you make? (Be honest!)
1. Not washing often enough. In a telephone survey, 92% of adults said they washed their hands after using public restrooms. But when researchers watched, they found that only 77% of people actually did so. Clean your hands not only at obvious times such as after using the bathroom - or changing a diaper, handling garbage, or before eating, for example - but also anytime you've touched surfaces that might harbor germs. These include doorknobs in public places, gym equipment, and seats and poles on public transportation. And to protect others, don't forget to wash your hands after blowing your nose or coughing or sneezing into your hands.
2. Not washing long enough. Too often, we're in a hurry and devote too little time to the task. It's important to wash at least 15 to 20 seconds, which can seem longer than you think. If you're too impatient to count seconds, try following the advice given to kids and sing your ABCs.
3. Not washing thoroughly enough. Just sticking your hands under the faucet doesn't cut it. Use warm, running water and liquid soap or clean bar soap. Scrub all surfaces, including backs of hands, between fingers, and under fingernails. The scrubbing, along with running water, helps dislodge germs.
4. Relying on antibacterial soaps. The label "antibacterial" gives the impression that these soaps are more effective in killing germs, but actually they're not. Using them can be detrimental if it lulls you into a false sense of security and makes you less diligent about hand-washing. Also, there are concerns that antibacterial soaps may lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
5. Not drying your hands. If you leave the sink with wet hands - something many of us frequently do - you haven't completed the job. Germs thrive in moist environments, so you need to dry your hands with a clean towel or air dryer. If neither is immediately available, try to locate a clean napkin or cloth and remove moisture as soon as possible.
6. Touching restroom surfaces after washing. Faucets and other surfaces in public restrooms are full of germs, so putting your clean hands on them can undermine even the best hand-washing efforts. After you wash, avoid contact with restroom surfaces by using a towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
7. Using ineffective hand sanitizers. Hand sanitizers are a great option if you don't have access to soap and water. Not all products are effective, though. Some may smell clean, but they don't contain enough alcohol to kill germs. Look for brands that have at least 60 percent alcohol. Use about a half-teaspoon and rub over all parts of your hands until they're dry.
Think you have all this down? Try this fun interactive quiz to test your knowledge of hand-washing and germs in general.
While it's essential to be vigilant, we also don't want to get carried away and become paranoid about germs. Here's an entertaining take on the subject from comedian Brian Frazer. Enjoy.