Swine flu and hand washing: The how, the when, and the why

Hand washing children mother

Source: PR Newswire

There are a number of things about the H1N1 (swine) flu that are different from the seasonal flu we see each year. For example, adolescents are at a greater risk of dying than younger children. This is just the opposite of what we typically expect. In a normal flu season, at least half the deaths are among children younger than 5. With swine flu, 80% of deaths have occurred in children ages 5 to 18.
Normally, flu fatalities are higher among older adults, but that’s not true for swine flu. Three out of five deaths have happened in people younger than 50. “Sophisticated” laboratory tests indicate that the immune systems of older adults are providing an unusual amount of protection against the swine flu virus. This suggests that adults over 50 were exposed to an ancestor of the H1N1 virus – probably when they were children – and their immune systems are now prepared to defend against related strains.

Seasonal flu normally has a limited impact on the digestive system. Compared to seasonal flu, however, swine flu has a larger percentage of cases with diarrhea as a symptom. Hand washing — always an important preventive measure with any type of influenza — is especially important in light of the prevalence of this particular symptom.

Wash, wash, wash the germs, gently down the stream

I’ve looked at lots of videos on hand washing, and this one from the UK is my favorite. That’s partly because there’s no lecture. It’s just simple captions to a jazz accompaniment. It’s very thorough, demonstrating a variety of things you can do with your hands and fingers. The variety can keep you occupied — and less bored — during the 20 seconds that hand washing should last.

Here’s the “how” of hand washing from the Mayo Clinic.

  • Wet your hands with warm, running water and apply liquid soap or use clean bar soap. Lather well.
  • Rub your hands vigorously together for at least 15 to 20 seconds.
  • 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 or disposable towel.
  • Use a towel to turn off the faucet.

The basic idea is that the mechanical action of scrubbing loosens up the bacteria, and then you rinse them away. 15 to 20 seconds is how long it takes to sing Happy Birthday, the alphabet song, or two rounds of Row Row Row Your Boat.
Here’s the “when.” Besides applying to the flu, the advice includes preventing food-related illnesses.

  • After using the toilet
  • After changing a diaper — wash the diaper-wearer’s hands, too
  • After touching animals or animal waste
  • Before and after preparing food, especially before and immediately after handling raw meat, poultry or fish
  • Before eating
  • After blowing your nose
  • After coughing or sneezing into your hands
  • Before and after treating wounds or cuts
  • Before and after touching a sick or injured person
  • After handling garbage
  • Before inserting or removing contact lenses
  • When using public restrooms, such as those in airports, train stations, bus stations and restaurants

I would add: After handling money or mail.
When soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer. They’re popping up all over the place where I live, including supermarkets and libraries.
Antibacterial hand sanitizers are not effective in reducing bacteria on the hands. They may also lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to antimicrobial agents. The FDA recommends a hand sanitizer with 60 to 90 percent alcohol. If young children use an alcohol sanitizer, their hands should be completely dry before they touch anything.
Until the swine flu vaccine arrives in mid-October, the message for parents is to make sure your children wash their hands frequently and keep them home from school at the first sign of feeling unwell. While the rest of us wait for the vaccine, the watchword is: If you touch something – a person or a hard surface in a public place – don’t touch anywhere on or near your face until you wash or sanitize your hands.
No need to freak out here, but a little precaution goes a long way.
Related posts:
Swine flu, kids, and a “wash your hands” rap video
Flu season: Should we stop shaking hands?
Preparing for the flu: Why don’t we do it in our sleeves?
Fear of flying: Will I catch swine flu on an airplane?
Swine flu parties for kids? Just say no
Flu news overdose


(Links will open in a separate window or tab.)

Thomas H. Maugh II, Swine flu more deadly to adolescents than to younger children,officials say, Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2009
Stephen Smith, Back to flu, The Boston Globe, August 31, 2009
Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., Seeking Lessons in Swine Flu Fight, The New York Times, August 10, 2009
Mayo Clinic Staff, Hand washing: An easy way to prevent infection, MayoClinic.com, Oct. 16, 2007


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