MedUni Vienna: Global Handwashing Day: protecting against infection with soap and water

On 15 October the World Health Organization WHO will once again be reminding us how easy it is to avoid the spread of harmful germs. Especially during cold seasons, effective hand hygiene is the best possible prevention against the influenza virus, for example. Florian Thalhammer, Director of the Clinical Department of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine at MedUni Vienna therefore advises us to wash our hands thoroughly with soap for at least 20 seconds.

Too many people still recklessly disregard the dangers of contracting a serious illness due to inadequate hygiene precautions. Although it is impossible to avoid contact with bacteria and viruses completely, it is possible to reduce it substantially.

In our everyday lives our hands are constantly coming in contact with germs, whether on door handles, light switches or objects that have been touched by several other people. Flu viruses, for example, can survive on surfaces for around 48 hours. Problems arise when the pathogens are then transferred via the hands into the mucosa of the eyes, nose or mouth.

Florian Thalhammer, infectiologist and doctor of internal medicine at MedUni Vienna, reckons that up to 80% of all infectious diseases are transferred via the hands: "The classic examples are colds and flu. Handwashing massively reduces this danger because it can reduce the germ count by more than 99%." For example, the rhinovirus count can be 65% on the hands, 50% in the nasal secretions and 39% in saliva.

In hospitals it is necessary, in principle, to disinfect one's hands with disinfectant after each patient contact as part of the hand hygiene procedure. However, even here there are situations where traditional handwashing is superior. It is essential to remove a dangerous and stubborn pathogen, such as Clostridium difficile for example, after contact with a patient by washing one's hands, because otherwise it is impossible to eliminate it completely.

Correct hand washing should take 20 to 30 seconds
Ideally you should wash your hands regularly as soon as you come home, before cooking and eating and, of course, after a trip to the lavatory. However, a quick rinse of the hands is not enough to minimize germs. Thalhammer: "You should hold them under running water and then thoroughly rub the soap into the palms of the hands, backs of the hands, fingertips and spaces between the fingers as well as the fingernails. It takes 20 to 30 seconds to clean hands that are not very dirty. In order to remove the resident skin flora, which is important for hand hygiene in a hospital, it is necessary to wash your hands with soap and water for three minutes."

Soap is ideally part of the cleansing process, because it reduces the surface tension of water, thereby improving contact with dirt particles. Commercial antibacterial soaps are unnecessary, because they do not remove germs any better than normal soaps. With regard to liquid soaps, Thalhammer advises: "The protective acid mantle on our skin represents a natural barrier to pathogens and so you should preferably use soaps that are pH neutral. Liquid soaps are more hygienic than traditional bars of soap." The temperature of the water is immaterial. However, it is a good idea to dry wet hands thoroughly, because germs can survive more easily in a damp environment.

Disinfectants cannot replace handwashing
Although domestic disinfectants are able to reduce the number of germs, they are no substitute for handwashing. Thalhammer: "It makes sense if members of the family are suffering from a highly contagious infection or a disease associated with lowered immunity, e.g. following cancer treatment. In any case, it is worth remembering that disinfectants should only be applied to and rubbed into dry skin. If they are applied to wet hands, they immediately lose their disinfecting action." Even the little bottles of disinfectant gels for use when you are out and about have more of a psychological effect and are no replacement for handwashing.

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