The holiday season brings many opportunities to eat, drink and be merry with family, friends and co-workers. But as we line up behind the buffet table and exchange handshakes or hugs with colleagues and friends, we're more susceptible to viruses that could leave us bedridden for the rest of the year.
That's why good hand hygiene and infection prevention is a sound public health practice for everyone. Those of us in health care have become familiar with efforts to improve hand hygiene practices. After all, cleaning our hands is the most important preventive measure we take in protecting our patients from hospital-acquired infections. But the need for good hand hygiene goes well beyond the walls of our health care organizations.
In the winter months, people from all walks of life spend a majority of their time inside small spaces where viruses can reside for days – sometimes weeks – at a time. For example, influenza virus can spread for two days on some surfaces. Hepatitis B virus can last up to seven days. Norovirus (also known as the cruise ship gastrointestinal virus) has survived in carpets for up to 12 days.
Everyday, we touch railings, tables and doorknobs – then proceed to touch our eyes, nose and mouth. Monitor yourself: How many times do you touch your face in the course of an hour? How about touching others? This is why hand hygiene is so important.
Here are two effective strategies for keeping your hands clean:
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer sprays and gels for when your hands are not visibly soiled – Remember this motto: "Liberally apply, rub your hands until dry, it's as simple as pie!"
Soap and water whenever one's hands are dirty (and of course, after using the toilet) – While frequent hand cleaning can dry out the skin in Colorado's dry climate, hand lotions can reduce this problem and help to eliminate cracks in the skin that can harbor germs.
Have you ever heard someone say "we wash our hands too much these days" or "I want to build up my immune system" as an excuse for not practicing good hand hygiene? Humbug! Spraying your hands with a bit of alcohol rub is much more pleasant than running to the bathroom every 15 minutes with a stomach virus or being stuck at home with a fever, cough and flu.
By practicing some basic public health principles (such as hand cleaning, getting annual flu immunizations, staying home when you are sick and covering your cough with the inner crook of your elbow), we can all do our part to protect ourselves and others from getting sick during the holiday season ... and throughout the year.