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Why Hand Washing Is so Important in Preventing Illness and Death

Updated on September 19, 2017
Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green is interested in common-sense approaches to health, quality of life, and planning for the future.

Want to Curb Sickness? Wash Your Hands.


Hand Hygiene is Critical to Health.

Hands Not Only Pick Up Germs But Can Spread Them, so Proper Hand Washing Plays a Key Role

How important is hand washing? According to the Canadian Center for Health and Occupational Safety, "Hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections." That's a weighty statement and one that humans would do well to heed. According to the World Health Organization. An estimated 1.5 million children die every year because their immune systems are not mature enough to battle diarrhea and respiratory diseases spread in contaminated environments.

Human hands come into contact with many objects daily and this is a two-sided scenario because hands not only pick up germs but can spread them, as well. In other words, hands are the go-between whereby disease-causing agents are acquired and can make the host ill and are transmitted to others.

Because germs are invisible, many people, adults and especially children, fail to understand just how important it is to thoroughly clean hands.

Sick of Being Sick All The Time?

Did you know that thoroughly washing hands the right way can have a huge impact on how often you get sick?


Hand Washing Prevents Common Illnesses and Serious Diseases

Hand washing can prevent common maladies that wreak havoc with our bodies. Washing your hands frequently throughout the day can spell the difference between months of good health or repeated bouts of colds, flu, and other sicknesses.

Because skin is the first line of defense against pathogenic organisms, this assumes mammoth proportions when an opening has been created in the skin, such as when skin has been scraped, cut or scratched. This creates not only an entry point but an exit point, as well, which can result in contracting or transmitting disease.

An Entry and an Exit Point

We All Have Had Our Share of Cuts and Scraped Skin But Did You Know This?

Any opening in skin creates an entry point and an exit point, which can result in contracting or transmitting disease.

Clean Hands Help Prevent the Flu

Semmelweis Shone a Spotlight on the Importance of Hand Hygiene

Semmelweis alerted others that medical students, who worked on cadavers and then afterwards attended to mothers, were, in fact, carrying and transmitting infectious substances on their hands. When proper hand hygiene was adopted, maternal death rates dropped sharply.

Ignorance About the Importance of Hand Washing in Earlier Times

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure...

The importance of hand washing was demonstrated in earlier times in relation to puerperal sepsis or what is known as childbed fever. Before hand washing was understood as a means to guard against transmission of disease, large numbers of women died following childbirth.

Thanks to the observation and interception of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, these tragedies were averted and came to an end. Semmelweis noticed that out of two maternity clinics operating under the auspices of the Vienna General Hospital, one clinic showed a death rate of 13.10%, as compared to the second clinic that showed a death rate of 2.03%.

Semmelweis theorized that medical students, who worked on cadavers and then afterwards attended to mothers, were, in fact, carrying and transmitting infectious substances on their hands. He noticed that in the second clinic, mothers who were attended to by midwives (who did not come into contact with cadavers nor were involved in surgery) did not succumb as frequently.

Dr. Semmelweis insisted that the doctors wash their hands and the rest is history: cases of child-bed fever and concurrent mortality were drastically reduced. Thus the antiseptic age was ushered in.


Arms, Too!

Don't just wash your hands. Include your arms.

How to Properly Wash Your Hands

Hand Washing Tips in the Home

  • Wash your hands throughout the day, not just after using the bathroom. This takes just seconds to do but can make such a difference to overall health.
  • Don't just wash your hands after using the bathroom. A "lick and a polish" in this case is not sufficient to kill germs. Scrub between your fingers and wash partway up your arms.
  • Wash under rings, as they can be a breeding ground for germs.
  • Scrub around nails with a small brush. Keep a brush on the side of the sink for this purpose.
  • Always, always, wash your hands before handling food or preparing a meal.

Drastically Reduce Colds and Flu

Washing your hands can spell the difference between months of good health or repeated bouts of colds, flu, and other sicknesses.

Where Germs Live

Hand Hygiene When Going Out

  • Be germ conscious. Remember that absolutely everything your hands come into contact with when you are out and about or in stores or shopping malls--such as doors,door knobs/handles, shopping cart handles, merchandise, tables in restaurants, salt and pepper shakers, pay phones, money--all have picked up germs from continual handing by hundreds, if not thousands of people.
  • When eating in a restaurant, while waiting for your order to arrive, use the restaurant washroom to wash your hands before eating. Lifting a fork towards your mouth can result in the spread of germs.
  • Never handle public washroom handle doorknobs. Studies have shown that many people fail to wash their hands after using a public bathroom and then handle doorknobs. Do you really want to come into contact with that? Use a paper towel to open the door.

Red Alert!

Always wash hands upon your return home. Your hands pick up germs in multiple places. As soon as you step through the door, head for the sink. Before you touch anything or prepare food, WASH YOUR HANDS.

What's Lurking Under and Around Your Fingernails?

Fingernails are a key location for germs to accumulate. In the video below watch what shows up.

UV Light Shows Germs on Hands

What Germs Remain AFTER You've Washed Your Hands?

With Glo Germ, now there's a way to find out.

Want to See How Many Germs Are on Your Hands?

Glo Germ is an innovative product that gives a visual on how many germs can colonize on human hands. The video shows what can be seen after using Glo Germ.

While germs may be easier to forget about when they are unseen, a product like this can help people to get an idea of just what could be lurking on their hands and where the greatest concentrations of germs might be.

This product can help get the message across to kids, too, because while words and warnings from parents may fall on deaf ears, when kids can actually see what is on their hands, this changes their perception.

Microorganisms That Should be Ousted--Do You Really Want Any of These Living Inside of You?

Illustrations from the English translation of Nicolas Andry's An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies, London, 1701
Illustrations from the English translation of Nicolas Andry's An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies, London, 1701 | Source

Global Travel Spells Potential Disease Transmission

Humans can now navigate the globe by means of air travel, thus the potential for disease transmission is magnified.

The importance of Hand Washing in Modern Times

Modern-day life is jam-packed with activity and humans can now navigate the globe by means of air travel, thus the potential for disease transmission is magnified.

In developed nations, many of the so-called killer diseases have largely became a thing of the past, and because of this, populations may have become complacent.

New diseases are emerging, however, and the next disease outbreak could be said to be as far away as the next bar of soap.

The picture is far grimmer in undeveloped countries (as seen in the table below).

Millions of Preventable Deaths

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1.5 million children die each year because of coming into contact with contaminated environments. These children's immune systems cannot battle diarrheal and respiratory diseases. (1)
Since 2009, 7 million children have died from diseases that could have been prevented through hand washing. (2)
Researchers in London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented. (3)

After reading this article, what will you do?

See results


  1. "Lack of Soap Means Illness, Death for Millions of Children" CNN Health, 2011
  2. Global Soap Project, Erica Odom, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  3. Erica Odom, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

© 2013 Athlyn Green


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