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Navigating Health and Aging: Wash hands to help ward off flu

The holidays are over and the next worry is upon us … flu season. The flu season has gotten off to an early start this year and appears to be particularly virulent. Of course the media has done a great job of scaring us with not-so-great statistics. We can of course take measures to minimize the risk to others and ourselves. If you have not already had the flu, you do not have to be a sitting duck waiting. We can all follow a few steps to minimize the risk of contracting the flu.

The single most important thing we can do to prevent the transmission of any contagious disease is to wash our hands! The value of good hand washing cannot be stressed enough. Hand washing saves lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Proper technique can cut cold and flu risk and prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses and other infections.

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Studies have shown that a whopping 95 percent of us are not washing our hands properly. A study published in the June issue of the Journal of Environmental Health found 95 percent of people exiting a public restroom were cutting corners. Thirty-three percent of people didn't use soap, while 10 percent skipped hand washing entirely. The average hand-washing time was 6 seconds, far below the CDC's recommended duration of 20 seconds.

Men did worse than women, the researchers observed. Fifteen percent of men didn't wash at all, compared with 7 percent of women. When they did wash, 50 percent of men used soap, compared to 79 percent of women.

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Another study from the American Society of Microbiology showed even more concerning statistics: 97 percent of females and 92 percent of males say they wash but of these only 75 percent of females and 58 percent of males actually washed their hands. Gentlemen in particular are cited for needing better hand hygiene.

Studies clearly indicate that we can significantly decrease the rate of the spread of germs by simple, proper hand washing. This is huge in the midst of a flu season, which seems to be of greater concern this year. What is proper hand washing and when should we be washing our hands?

Hand washing should take place whenever one uses the bathroom, changes a diaper, cares for someone is sick or has open wounds, coughs or sneezes into the hands (which should be avoided by using a tissue or into the sleeve), before and after handling food or eating, handling pets or pet food, touching your face or nose or of course any unclean or contaminated surfaces.

Being mindful of touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth can help eliminate entry of germs into your body. Most of us don't realize how much we have our hands on our face and near our mouths. Here's a challenge: Count how many times you rub your eyes or nose, touch your face or put things into your mouth in one hour. You'll be surprised how much touching of the hair, face and mouth you do each day. We all touch handrails, phones, steering wheels and sinks, etc., which are harbingers of germs, and then touch our faces or put food in our mouths without washing our hands.

What is the proper way to wash your hands? The CDC recommends washing for 20 seconds (the amount of time to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice). Most of us do not do a good job washing the entire hand with attention to the fingertips and around and under the nails. Begin by wetting the hands with water, applying soap, washing for the recommended 20 seconds and then drying the hands with a paper towel and turning off the water with the paper towel. Avoid touching the faucet and sink area. I'm always surprised when I see someone in a public restroom dry their hands and then use the towel to clean up the sink then touch it to throw it away. While it may seem considerate, it exposes the person to germs hanging around wet areas.

If soap and water are not available, then a 60 percent alcohol-based cleanser should be used. Hand sanitizers can be effective when used properly but do not kill all bacteria strains.

The CDC is recommending a three-pronged approach to fighting the flu. First is get vaccinated — it's not too late — and although it has not proven to be effective against all strains this year, it still is effective against several strains. The second but again very important step is to follow good health habits such as hand washing, avoiding close contact, remaining at home if you're sick, covering your mouth, avoiding touching your face, eating well, drinking plenty of fluids and getting plenty of sleep. Lastly, if you develop the flu, then use of an anti-viral (Tamiflu) is recommended. The manufacturer has released a statement that there should be a sufficient supply for a severe season.

Taking a proactive approach to staying healthy this season can help minimize the risk of contracting the flu. Remember that while the highest risk populations for adverse consequences of the flu are those under the age of 4 and over 65, it is still important for all to take precautions. Wash your hands and be well!

Jill Rosner is a registered nurse, certified geriatric care manager and owner of Rosner Healthcare Navigation. She provides patient advocacy and care management services to clients with health and aging issues. Contact her at JillRosnerRN@aol.com.

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