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DR TIM ALLISON: Hand washing improves health and lowers risk of other infections

By Dr Tim Allison

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Dr Tim Allison, NHS Highland Director of Public Health. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Dr Tim Allison, NHS Highland Director of Public Health. Picture: James Mackenzie.

We often know what we should do to improve our health, such as getting more physical activity, meeting people, eating healthily and stopping smoking.

Doing these things is more difficult than intending to do them though.

We may need help to achieve what we want to do, and with smoking for example a variety of specialist help is available.

Some things that improve our health are much easier to do yet all too often neglected.

Hand washing is one of these.

At the start of the Covid pandemic there was a lot of attention placed on washing hands.

Before vaccination and when we were starting to learn more about the virus hand washing was one of the things that was heavily promoted to reduce the spread of the disease.

We now think more about good ventilation, staying at home when we are ill and about vaccination to tackle Covid.

Hand washing has dropped down the agenda, but it is still important.

Not only does hand washing play a part in reducing Covid transmission but it reduces our risks for diarrhoea, influenza and many other diseases.

Over the summer we continue to see cases of food poisoning and the risk of this can be greatly reduced with good hand hygiene.

We have not yet seen a rise in cases of influenza, but sadly it is only a matter of time before that disease comes back in force.

Hand washing is simple, cheap and effective.

If it were a new medicine, it would make international headlines.

It is important to wash our hands after using the toilet or changing a nappy, before and after handling raw food, before handling food, after blowing our nose, sneezing or coughing, when tending to a wound or after dealing with animals.

Hand washing with water should take at least 20 seconds, which is the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

It is not a matter of a quick hand swipe under a tap.

We can use either warm or cold water to wash our hands. Warm water will feel more comfortable, but it is the soap and water that get rid of the germs, not the temperature of the water.

We should rub our hands well together and dry completely – using a disposable towel if one is available.

When soap and water are not available, we can use alcohol-based hand rubs, and these have become much more available during the pandemic.

Many of us paid great attention to hand washing at the start of the pandemic and we can get back to that.

I am looking forward to being impressed by seeing how people wash their hands rather than watching in dismay as people ignore the hand basin and ignore the simple chance to prevent disease.

  • Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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