No doubt, we share the world with several organisms some of which endanger our lives. There are viruses, bacteria, fungi, among other organisms that cause diseases. These disease-vectors invade our bodies’ defence systems, breaking us down.
While you stare into the sky to seek ways of avoiding the impacts of these “microscopic neighbors”, do know that you can avoid their effect to the barest minimum with efficient regular handwashing.
There are a few diseases you can prevent via handwashing as it remains the most viable and cost-effective way of preventing the spread of infections and disease. This is highly recommended by public health agencies and experts out there.
Recent evidence has shown the relevance of hand hygiene in combating and preventing diseases and infections. This is even pronounced by the sudden outbreak of the Corona Virus Diseases (COVID)-19 which has paralyzed economies, closed businesses and brought a new way of doing things.
Having said that, this post will highlight common diseases and infections handwashing can prevent.
But before then, let’s first understand how we get infected.
How we get infected
I started this post by stating that we share the environment with other living things, in this case, disease-causing organisms, pathogens, or vectors. These organisms are at the heart of most infections and disease around.
They transmit diseases from one host to another when they find favorable conditions. Creating an unconducive environment could be a way to stop their effects and limit infections.
However, it’s safer to limit all avenues for their transmission.
Well, we get infected in several ways. I will, however, look at one of the commonest modes or ways of infection. And that is Contact!
At homes, in the office, schools, and several other places, we come in contact with individuals and objects. Given the polluted nature of our present atmosphere and environment, it’s safe to assume that most of the surfaces we come in contact with could be infected.
Some of these surfaces contain microbes. As a result, when we touch them with our hands, we carry these microbes or germs. Should we fail to wash our hands, we might touch our eyes, mouths, nose and ears with these hands.
This gives room for the microbes to enter into our bodies, infecting us with diseases.
Whereas I’ve pointed out just a single contact process, you can think of others. For example, using the toilet, clearing the bin with or without protective gears, among others.
So, contact with our hands opens up the chance of being infected if we do adhere to hand hygiene measures.
The Role of Handwashing
From the previous section, I assume you’ve understood how we get infected via contact with contaminated surfaces and objects. To avoid infections, we can take the step of frequently washing our hands using recommended guidelines.
That’s where handwashing comes in. According to WaterAid, handwashing has reduced the rate of infection-related infant mortality by 27%. It is the preferred preventive approach as it’s cost-effective, convenient, and easily available.
According to CDC, regular and proper handwashing can reduce diarrheal illness up to 58% especially for those with weaker immune systems.
Washing your hands brings you benefits, most importantly, it protects you against infections keeping you free from illness and diseases.
In the next section, you’ll see some diseases that you can prevent through good hand hygiene.
Diseases and infections Handwashing Prevents
Now you know the role of handwashing in keeping you safe and healthy. It is something you should practice and equally encourage others to do regularly, especially those you mostly come in contact with.
Here, I will highlight the common diseases and infections that efficient handwashing can prevent so you get to know the good you’re doing yourself by washing your hands.
1. Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is not known to be as deadly as Hepatitis B and C. Nevertheless, contacting this disease isn’t going to do you any good. It is a liver disease. Though most people recover from it with life-long immunity, a few “persons could die from fulminant hepatitis”, states WHO. Hepatitis A has been known to cause both mild and severe illnesses.
This disease is transmitted via the ingestion of contaminated food and water or contact with an infected person.
According to the World Health Organization, hepatitis A has accounted for 0.5% of mortality worldwide. WHO associates its infection to “lack of safe water, and poor sanitation and hygiene (such as dirty hands)”.
Washing your hands helps remove the Hepatitis A virus in case you came in contact with it. In fact, WHO noted that:
Safe water supply, food safety, improved sanitation, hand washing and the hepatitis A vaccine are the most effective ways to combat the disease.
The above clearly shows the relevance of washing your hands regularly and rightly. You’ll be protecting yourself from possible infection.
Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)
Conjunctivitis is the inflammation or infection of the outer membrane of the eyeball and the inner eyelid. It causes a pink or red color in the white of the eye, irritation, and increased tear production.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) enumerates discharge, swelling of the conjunctiva and a frequent urge to rub the eyes as some of the effects of pink eye.
As further stated by CDC, the causal organism is transmitted through the air – coughing and sneezing, contact with infected persons and touching surfaces contaminated with the germs. This is so because after touching these surfaces or shaking hands with an infected person, one might touch their eyes with the contaminated hands.
In Nigeria alone, there are over 1.5 million cases yearly, according to the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan.
To prevent being infected, the UK National Health Service (NHS) recommends regular handwashing with soap and water as a potent preventive measure to adopt against conjunctivitis.
In a similar vein, CDC supports that good hand hygiene through handwashing could prove potent in preventing the spread of pink eye.
2. Influenza (Flu)
Flu is a contagious infection that spreads easily to people. It causes fever, body pains, sore throat, fatigue, headache, and according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it “may also lead to lung infection (pneumonia) or death.
The pathogen gets transmitted via coughing and sneezing and can live for some periods on surfaces of objects. When you touch an infected person or surface and use the same unwashed hand to touch your mouth, nose, or eye, you expose yourself to being infected by influenza.
The first approach to preventing the spread of this infection is via the flu vaccine. In addition, using a face mask could help prevent the virus from dropping on body openings when an infected person sneezes or coughs near you.
The NHS equally recommends washing “your hands often with warm water and soap” as a good preventive measure. The CCOHS also recommends following necessary hygiene practices such as washing your hands after touching contaminated objects.
3. E. coli
Escherichia coli most known as E. coli are bacteria that live mostly in the intestines of humans and animals. Some strains of these bacteria cause intestinal infections including diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. Severe cases can lead to bloody diarrhea, dehydration or even kidney failure.
Children below the age of 5 years and the elderly are the most susceptible. 8% of this susceptible group may develop haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) which can lead to severe bleeding and kidney failure.
People with poor food and hand hygiene are at a higher risk of infection. In fact, most of the preventive measures recommended by public health entities point to maintaining good food and hand hygiene.
As noted by the CDC, to prevent infection, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after/before:
- using the bathroom,
- contact with animals
- preparing meals and feeding infants.
Yet again, handwashing seems to be an important practice in preventing infections.
4. Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD)
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a viral disease common in children under the age of 5 years, though anyone can have the disease. The infection causes mouth sores, blisters on hands, feet, legs, or buttocks. While it is not a serious infection, it can sometimes be very painful and cause discomfort.
In addition to blisters and sores, HFMD causes fever, sore throat, loss of appetite, fatigue, and crankiness.
The virus that causes HFMD spreads through fluids such as saliva, mucus, and fluids from blisters and gets transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Also, contact with infected fluids and surfaces increases the risk of infection.
Preventing HFMD requires good hygiene – cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and proper washing of the hands. WebMD advises that you wash your hands especially after changing a diaper or wiping a child’s nose. Also, helping children to keep their hands clean reduces the chances of infection.
5. Strep throat
This is an infectious disease you can easily get from another person. Strep throat is a grade of sore throat caused by bacteria called streptococcus pyogenes or Group A Streptococcus (GAS). It causes pains, dryness and itchy feel in the throat, bad breath, swollen neck glands, and a mild cough.
Just like the Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, strep throat affects both children and adults but it’s common in children between ages 5 and 15.
CDC reports that strep throat is transmitted via direct contact with the saliva or nasal secretions from an infected person. This happens when an infected person sneezes or coughs, also kissing.
Specifically, when you touch surfaces containing the saliva or nasal secretions from an infected person and then touch your mouth, nose or ear, it gives room for transmission.
While there’s no vaccine for preventing strep throat, Health Line recommends handwashing as the most effective way of avoiding infection. According to them:
One of the most effective ways to help avoid infection is by regularly washing your hands.
In addition to washing your hands, safe coughing and sneezing practice will prevent the spread of the infection.
Salmonellosis is caused by a bacterium known to be salmonella. This disease is mostly related to food consumption and causes diarrhea, severe stomach pain, and fever.
One can easily contact salmonellosis by consuming raw or undercooked meat, unpasteurized dairy products, undercooked eggs, and poor handwashing.
An estimate by WHO shows that typhoid affects 220 million children under the age of 5 years worldwide.
Though there are several means to prevent the transmission of this disease, WebMD notes that washing the hands with soap and water after touching possibly infected surfaces is a good preventive measure.
This is acceptable given the fact one can come in contact with salmonella via contact. Washing the hands helps to remove the virus and avoids it moved into the intestine where it causes pains.
7. Norovirus Illness
Norovirus illness is a very contagious infection that affects people of all age groups – both young and old. This illness is caused by norovirus and causes diarrhea and vomiting. CDC highlights stomach pain, nausea, headache and body pains as other effects of the illness.
You can catch norovirus from contact with an infected person and touching openings (eyes, nose, and ears) with the unwashed hands. Also, touching surfaces or objects that have the virus on them and touching your mouth.
Another means you can catch the virus is by consuming contaminated meals, especially food prepared or handled by someone with the virus.
To prevent the spread of this virus, often wash your hands with soap and water, especially after touching contaminated objects and surfaces. Observe food hygiene, and clean and disinfect surfaces.
Take Healthy Steps to Stay Safe
From the list of infections above, one cannot overemphasize the relevance of handwashing in preventing infections. It is highly recommended that, at all levels, you frequently wash your hands to remove germs and microbes that might get you infected.
Luckily, this practice is quite affordable. With just running water and soap, you can save yourself from infection which might have cost you money.
Whereas I’ve only listed 8 infections effective handwashing can prevent, there are several others. For instance, you can prevent mononucleosis with this practice.
So, take healthy steps today to stay safe and prevent you and those around you from getting infected with several diseases out there.