Holiday Hands

Posted on December 23, 2011


The holiday season brings many opportunities to eat, drink and be merry with family, friends and colleagues. We also find ourselves exchanging handshakes or hugs with friends, which can make you more susceptible to viruses that could leave us bedridden for the remainder of 2011.

Good hand hygiene and infection prevention is a sound public health practice for everyone. Those of us in public health have become familiar with efforts to improve hand hygiene practices. But the need for good hand hygiene goes well beyond the walls of our favorite Boston health care organizations.

In the winter months, people from all walks of life spend a majority of their time inside small spaces where viruses can reside for days – sometimes weeks – at a time. For example, influenza virus can spread for two days on some surfaces. Hepatitis B virus can last up to seven days. Norovirus (also known as the cruise ship gastrointestinal virus) has survived in carpets for up to 12 days.

Everyday, we touch railings in buildings, hold onto handles on the T, grasp tables and doorknobs – then proceed to touch our eyes, nose and mouth. Monitor yourself: How many times do you touch your face in the course of an hour? How about touching others? This is why hand hygiene is so important.

Here are two effective strategies for keeping your hands clean:

  • § Alcohol-based hand sanitizer sprays and gels for when your hands are not visibly soiled – Remember this motto: “Liberally apply, rub your hands until dry, it’s as simple as pie!”
  • § Soap and water whenever one’s hands are dirty (and of course, after using the toilet) – While frequent hand cleaning can dry out the skin in Massachusett’s dry winter climate, hand lotions can reduce this problem and help to eliminate cracks in the skin that can harbor germs.

Have you ever heard someone say “we wash our hands too much these days” or “I want to build up my immune system” as an excuse for not practicing good hand hygiene? Humbug! Spraying your hands with a bit of alcohol rub is much more pleasant than running to the bathroom every 15 minutes with a stomach virus or being stuck at home with a fever, cough and flu.

By practicing some basic public health principles (such as hand cleaning, getting annual flu immunizations, staying home when you are sick and covering your cough with the inner crook of your elbow), we can all do our part to protect ourselves and others from getting sick during the holiday season … and throughout the year.