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    Consumer Health: Wash your hands to stay healthy

a close-up of a white man's hands covered in soap lather, washing his hands at a bathroom sink

National Handwashing Awareness Week will be observed Dec. 3–9, so this is a good time for a reminder that washing your hands is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness.

Keeping hands clean can prevent 1 in 3 diarrhea-related illnesses and 1 in 5 respiratory infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hand-washing is an easy way to prevent infection. As you touch people, surfaces and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. You can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth, or spread them to others. Although it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands with soap and water frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza (flu) are respiratory infections caused by different viruses. A number of diseases and conditions can cause diarrhea, including viruses, bacteria and parasites. All three of these conditions can cause severe illness in people at higher risk, including young children under 2, adults over 65, and those who have weakened immune systems and chronic illnesses. Frequent hand-washing can prevent the spread of diarrhea, RSV and the flu.

How to wash your hands

It's generally best to wash your hands with soap and water. Over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap.

Follow these steps:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water — either warm or cold.
  • Apply soap and lather well.
  • Rub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Remember to scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  • Rinse well.
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry them.

Young children learn by imitation, so be sure you are following good hand hygiene practices at home. Wash your hands with your children to show them how it's done. And if you need a refresher, Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert and head of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, offers a demonstration on hand-washing.

Hand-washing is an easy, important part of preventing illness. Adopting this habit can keep you and your family healthy.

Connect with others talking about healthy living in the Healthy Living Support Group on Mayo Clinic Connect, an online patient community moderated by Mayo Clinic.