Staying Healthy

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Written by Lynda Davenport

With all of the recent press and talk of pandemics, influenza, Norwalk outbreaks and super-bugs, one might wonder how to stay healthy and dodge the germs. It will always be a challenge to avoid becoming ill from a communicable disease as germs can’t be seen, sources of risk can’t always be identified and new risks seem to be emerging regularly. A number of years ago the health care community adopted a cautious approach to avoiding a germ attack from an unknown or unanticipated risk by introducing what they called, ‘Universal Precautions’.

The premise of this risk management infection control strategy is that you can never be fully aware of what you might be dealing with or what you might be exposed to; therefore, you must always exercise the same diligent care and caution. For health care workers it means ensuring that they always and consistently practice good infection control (hygiene) techniques, starting with hand washing, to ensure their personal safety and the safety of their clients and ultimately influencing the safety of the community. It would appear that hand washing is the single most effective infection control strategy in personal protection and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.

The layperson’s version of ‘universal precautions’ is summed up in good hand hygiene. Germs can live an undetermined amount of time, sometimes for days, on surfaces and things like doorknobs, money, plastic cards, etc. Diseases spread and people become sick when they touch those contaminated areas and then touch their eyes, mouth, or noses which act as portals for the introduction of germs into their bodies. The number one strategy that you can individually use to protect yourself and others from respiratory infections, food borne illnesses, Norwalk-like viruses, childhood diseases (e.g. chicken pox) and other infections is hand washing or hand cleansing with a hand sanitizer.

You may think that you know how to wash your hands but research has shown that even hand washing has a ‘most effective’ technique.

Wash Hands Before:

  • preparing or eating food
  • inserting or removing contact lenses
  • caring for a child or someone who is ill
  • providing first aid

Wash Hands After:
  • using the restroom
  • touching bare human body parts
  • playing with or caring for pets or their habitats
  • eating or drinking or using tobacco products
  • using shared exercise or athletic equipment
  • handling garbage or soiled products
  • doing house cleaning
  • after providing child care, care for someone who is ill, or first aid
  • after shopping
  • after partying and dancing
  • after doing anything that creates dirty hands or where there is the possibility of hand contamination

Hand Washing with Soap and Water:
  • use warm running water
  • use liquid soap if possible (bar soap has been cultured and found to breed germs)
  • wash all parts of hands, rubbing them vigorously together for 15-20 seconds (according to Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health this is as long as it takes to sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ or the alphabet song) - wash longer if using bar soap (the friction of good hand washing is important to cleansing)
  • rinse hands well
  • dry hands thoroughly using, if possible, a single use paper towel which after hands are dried can be used to turn off the taps (avoids re-contaminating clean hands from germs on taps) and then discard in waste basket
  • (do not share hand or body towels)
  • use a moisturizer to nourish dry skin (germs can live in the cracks of dry skin)

Cleaning Hands with a Hand SanitizerHand sanitizers are not used with water:
  • apply enough hand sanitizer to keep your hands moist for 15 seconds
  • rub the product thoroughly over the tops and backs of hands and between fingers
  • rub the tips of fingers on the opposite palm
  • keep rubbing your hands together until they feel dry – do not dry your hands with a towel.

In addition to hand hygiene, recognizing, using and requiring of others good cough etiquette can reduce the risk of spreading upper respiratory infections. Cough etiquette seems to be relatively new terminology for covering your mouth and nose when you have a cough. Shield your cough or sneeze from others by using a tissue or your upper sleeve. After coughing and sneezing wash your hands or cleanse them with a hand sanitizer and discard used tissue into the garbage.

With a busy academic schedule and the challenges of communal-like living, students are encouraged to manage their personal wellbeing to avoid being vulnerable to communicable infectious diseases. Eat, exercise, and sleep well. Practice good hygiene. Be immunized against illnesses that have effective vaccines. Manage your stress or seek wise counsel. If you do become ill, and are unsure of how to manage your symptoms or are concerned about your symptoms seek medical or nursing advice, and stay home, away from others, to recover and heal. (After the symptoms of infectious gastrointestinal illness have gone you should still stay away from others for 48 hours.) There are no guarantees that you will avoid all ills, but you can help yourself and through self-care contribute to a safer, healthier community.

Lynda Davenport works with Student Health Services located in the J.T. Powell Building.

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