Why Is Hand Washing So Important?

The History Behind Hand Washing 

Hand washing is a normal part of most of our days, but it has not always been this way. Not until the 19h century was it thought to be beneficial for doctors, nurses and medical staff to thoroughly clean their hands before examining or working with their next patient. In 1846, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, of the John Hopkins School of Public Health, began to study why hundreds of women and babies were dying during childbirth. He studied two different maternity wards: one that utilized doctors to deliver babies and one that employed midwives. Semmelweis discovered that the maternity ward where doctors were doing the deliveries experienced far more deaths than that of the midwives. The doctors, of course were also doing autopsies, surgeries and exams of patients who were sick, but this did not come to mind at first. 

After several misplaced hypotheses about the reason for the deaths, Semmelweis came up perplexed, but was given a clue when a pathologist passed away after being pricked by a syringe while working with a sample. The pathologist died of the same symptoms and causes as the women and children. This led Semmelweis to believe that cadaverous materials or particles were contaminating the delivery rooms, causing the women and babies to fall ill.  

Semmelweis instructed his staff to wash their hands with water, soap and chlorine between patients, so as to sanitize them in the best way he knew how, and the number of deaths dropped dramatically. Finally, a solution! 

Unfortunately, doctors were infuriated that these findings pointed to them as the reason for the death toll, so they rejected Semmelweis’s findings. Thankfully, it took hold after much uproar and rejection by guilt ridden physicians, and Semmelweis is now known as the father of hand hygiene. 

Why Do We Need to Wash Our Hands?

Hand washing prevents the spread of germs, bacteria and fecal matter from one person to the next. Prevention of the spread of bacteria and viruses equates to the prevention of infection and getting sick. 

There are several ways that washing hands can help prevent infection, including:

  • Prevention of self infection by transferring someone else’s germs or bacteria to our eyes, nose and mouth. We often touch our faces without even realizing it. 
  • Prevention of contamination during food preparation. If we do not wash our hands before preparing food, pouring drinks, or plating food for others, we risk contamination. 
  • Prevention of spreading bacteria and viruses via transferring them to items we touch such as cell phones, door handles, handrails, steering wheels and children’s toys. 

Best Practices in Hand Washing

Although we likely wash our hands several times a day, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the best practices for hand washing. 

Follow the tips to be sure you are washing your hands properly:

  1. Wet hands under running, clean water, then turn off the tap.
  2. Apply soap and lather for at least 20 seconds, be sure to rub vigorously and reach all sides of the hands and fingers, possibly the wrists if soiled.
  3. Be sure to clean under fingernails and under any jewelry.
  4. Rinse thoroughly under running water, to remove all traces of soap and soil.
  5. Dry hands using a clean towel or paper towel, or air dry, making sure to dry under rings and fingernails. 

The history of hand washing truly gives us a clear reason to make sure our hands are clean. If nothing else, hand washing prevents children from getting sick and missing out on school and activities. With proper instruction, children can learn the best practices in hand washing from a young age, so that they prevent the spread of germs for years to come. The best lesson is that taught by example. Be sure to wash your hands during school or when your own children are present because little eyes are always watching.