Can you answer the following question correctly?

What is the best way to prevent the spread of disease and illness?

a) Vaccinations
b) Covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing
c) Hand washing
d) Staying away from sick people

Nurses most certainly should know this answer—hand washing, hand washing, hand washing! Although all of the above interventions can help prevent the spread of illnesses, hand washing is the single most important way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.

Hand washing is so important that our instructors in nursing school advised us that on any test question if one of the answers was hand washing, it was probably the correct answer. (The other most likely correct answer was “airway." That's right, hand washing ranks up there with the "A" of the ABCs of CPR.) Our very first check off in nursing school was to demonstrate the correct way to wash hands (talk about a lot of anxiety over such a seemingly simple procedure).

Nurses know this information all too well, but do our patients, friends, and family members? With flu season in full effect, the norovirus presently running rampant (at least in my hospital), and C-diff outbreaks, I think it’s very important to teach our patients and loved ones that the number-one way to prevent the spread of disease and illness is hand washing. The importance of hand washing cannot be overestimated. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water.

As an oncology nurse, you know that it’s vital that we teach our patients who are immunocompromised and neutropenic how to decrease the risk of infection. However, I’ve noticed that many nurses and doctors somehow forget to mention this vital teaching point. We like to assume that everyone already knows this. Believe me, they don’t. Some patients and family members look at me with a weird look on their face when I explain that hand washing is the single most important thing they can do to prevent infection. They then seem to have a sort of ah-ha moment. Hand washing cannot be stressed enough.

It is very important to teach our children this valuable, life-saving skill as well. Children are notorious for carrying germs and bacteria on those little touch-everything-and-anything hands. Then, those dirty little hands go straight into their mouths. We must be good role models and let our children observe us washing our hands frequently, especially before eating and after toileting. I always stress to my husband when he watches our six-month-old baby girl to remember to wash her hands a couple of times per day (even if just with a baby wipe) to keep them clean. We forget that hand washing is also important (if not more so) for babies. My daughter constantly has her little hands (aka germ collectors) in her mouth.

When should you wash your hands? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) you should wash hands

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal or animal waste
  • After touching garbage.

What is the right way to wash your hands? According to the CDC, the following is the correct way to wash hands.

  • Wet hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), and apply soap.
  • Rub hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails.
  • Continue rubbing hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse hands well under running water.
  • Dry hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers quickly can reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.

So let’s not forget to teach our patients, children, friends, and family members this pertinent skill to fight germs!

For more information on hand washing please visit the following websites.
Mayo Clinic