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National Handwashing Awareness Week

National Handwashing Awareness Week


In short, washing hands saves lives.

If you had given birth or been born in 1847 in an overcrowded hospital in Vienna, Austria, you’d probably agree. The infant mortality rate was 26 percent at the time, and the average life expectancy was less than 40 years.

A young Viennese physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, was recently appointed as house officer for two Viennese obstetric clinics. He noticed that the clinic in which doctors hurried straight to the birthing roomA doctor and nurse visit an ill patient in 1843 from the autopsy room — where puerperal fever was a frequent, fatal visitor — had a very high infant mortality rate of 16 percent compared to 7 percent at the other clinic.

Semmelweis supposed that “cadaverous particles” might be causing the significant infant mortality rate. He suggested that doctors scrub their hands with a chlorinated lime solution before leaving the autopsy room to kill the deadly particles. After practices were implemented, the mortality rate at the clinic immediately fell to 3 percent.

It was decades before the lifesaving practice of handwashing would be commonly accepted, but eventually it was. Handwashing could be indirectly instrumental to your very existence!

National Handwashing Awareness week, celebrated this week, keeps the spotlight on the importance of this basic disease prevention method.

Related resource: National School Backpack Awareness Day

What is the best way to wash your hands?

It was years before handwashing become standard procedure around the world, but once it was, it was quickly recognized as a lifesaving practice. Even so, studies have shown that handwashing must become a habit in order to work, like wearing a seatbelt or flossing. If people have to think about it, they might not do it.

So what’s the best way to form a handwashing habit? Repeat the five-step method.

The 5-step handwashing method

The World Health Organisation (WHO) developed the five-step hand-washing method specifically for healthcare workers to avoid spreading germs to others and getting sick yourself. The five-step method is simple:

Step 1: Wet your hands with warm, clean water and apply soap.
Step 2: Lather the soap and create bubbles by rubbing your hands together. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
Step 3: Scrub your hands and arms up to the elbows.
Step 4: Rinse your hands to wash away soap and germs.
Step 5: Dry your hands and arms with paper towels, or a blow drier if possible.

Hand Sanitizer

If you don’t have soap and water handy, there are other ways of sanitizing your hands. Squirt a dime-sized amount of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and rub it on your hands and between your fingers for a germ-killing spree.

Experts agree that hand sanitizer is not a great substitute and should be used only when soap and water are not available.


While gloves don’t provide complete protection for healthcare workers, they significantly reduce contamination between providers and patients, and pathogens in the environment.

The World Health Organization has the following recommendations for safe glove practices.

Wear gloves:

  1. Before a sterile procedure.
  2. When anticipating contact with blood or another body fluid, regardless of the existence of sterile conditions and including contact with non-intact skin and mucous membrane.
  3. Contact with a patient (and his/her immediate surroundings) during contact precautions.

Do not wear gloves:

  1. As soon as gloves are damaged (or non-integrity suspected).
  2. When contact with blood, another body fluid, non-intact skin, and mucous membrane has occurred and has ended.
  3. When contact with a single patient and his/her surroundings, or a contaminated body site on a patient has ended.
  4. When there is an indication for hand hygiene.

Wearing gloves is not a substitute for handwashing.

How long do you wash your hands?

A nurse is washing her handsA quick rinse does not get rid of germs as effectively as a long, thorough scrub. So how long should you wash your hands?

Studies show that you should scrub your hands with soap for 20 seconds — so sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice, rinse your hands well, and you’re done! (To avoid strange looks in the bathroom, we recommend singing silently in your head, unless it is really your birthday.)

Related resource: 6 Tips for Working with Kids

When should you wash your hands?

As a child, you were probably told to wash your hands before eating and after a bathroom break. But that’s not the only time a good hand-washing is necessary. So when should you wash your hands?

  • Before, during, and after making any kind of food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child or other adult who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal food, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage

If you’re not sure if you should wash your hands … you should probably go ahead and wash them!

Handwashing and food preparation

It’s especially important to practice good hand hygiene when preparing food: Raw and cooked meat and vegetables are great places to grow harmful bacteria.

In the kitchen, you should wash your hands:

  • Before cooking or preparing food.
  • After you touch raw food, especially meat and poultry.
  • After going to the bathroom.
  • After touching the garbage or sink.

You can also avoid spreading germs in the kitchen by sanitizing your counter, kitchen utensils, and chopping board. Keep raw foods, such as uncooked chicken and raw broccoli, far away from ready-to-eat food, such as salad, fruit, and bread. Cooking kills most germs, so it’s important to make sure all raw foods be completely cooked.

Related resource: You Know You’re a Nurse When…

At Ameritech, we teach our students best practices surrounding handwashing and other practices that affect public health — during National Handwashing Awareness Week and at every other possible opportunity.

Learn more about our nursing, RN-BSN, occupational therapy assistant, or other programs.

National Handwashing Awareness Week