Want to Protect Yourself from COVID-19? Step 1: Wash Your Hands
As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to grow, disease control experts are reminding the public to practice good health habits—such as proper hand hygiene—to prevent the spread of this fast-moving virus.
As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to grow, disease control experts are reminding the public to practice good health habits—such as proper hand hygiene—to prevent the spread of this fast-moving virus. Hand hygiene is the cornerstone of good infection control in health care settings.
Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, COVID-19 presents with similar symptoms as the flu such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Currently, those exposed to COVID-19 are to self-isolate for 14 days.
To date, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 1,629 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US with 41 deaths and 47 jurisdictions (46 states and the District of Columbia) reporting cases.1 Much like the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) caused by a coronavirus in 2003, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly around the globe, reaching Europe, Africa, Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific. Officials have reacted to the outbreak by restricting public gatherings, and domestic and international travel restrictions have been put in place, with the most recent ban on travel from Europe to the US announced March 11.
The pandemic has sent many people into a panic, leading to shortages of water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and face masks. Rather than panic, Americans can minimize the risk of infection by skipping concerts and events with large crowds, avoiding unnecessary travel by cruise ship or plane, and social distancing. The CDC recommends people wash their hands often, avoid close contact with people who are sick, cover coughs and sneezes, stay home if sick, and wear a face mask if sick.2
Of course personal hygiene will not protect from all germs but effective hand washing kills viruses stops the transmission to eyes, mouth, and nose. Soap helps destroy the lipid envelope that the pathogen is encased in, which means the simple act of hand washing weakens the virus.
“Hand hygiene is implicated as one of the biggest contributors to health care-acquired infections. Routine hand washing helps to get rid of transient bacteria,” says Kandis V. Garland, RDH, MS, an associate professor in the Department of Dental Hygiene at Idaho State University (ISU) Pocatello, clinic director, and health and safety coordinator at ISU, and Dimensions of Dental Hygiene’s online expert for infection control. “People need to be cognizant to not touch their faces because your eyes, mouth, and nose are mucus membranes and are a way for bacteria to get into your body. But face touching is very hard for people; I think that’s a big one with this whole coronavirus and flu season.”
However, hand washing must be done thoroughly and properly to be effective. The CDC offers the following guidance on proper handwashing:
- Wet your hands with warm or cold running water before applying foam soap.
- Lather your hands with soap by rubbing them together, making sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing,
- Completely dry hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.
- Turn off the faucet with a paper towel.
- No soap and water? Reach for a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands and rub together for at least 15 seconds or more.
Oral health professionals should perform hand hygiene after possible contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials, according to the American Dental Association. And hand hygiene should be performed by clinicians immediately before donning gloves and after glove removal.3
“Health care workers should also continue to practice good respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette and isolate or reschedule sick patients,” Garland says. “Dental offices should also provide hand sanitizer at the front desk for patients, wipe things off very frequently, and require patients who are sick but need an emergency dental appointment to wear a mask and sit 4 feet away from other people in the waiting room.”
Use of personal protective equipment is extremely important for clinicians as COVID-19 spreads from person-to-person in close contact with one another, and through respiratory droplets from an infected person. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association has published a preparedness checklist for dental hygienists (adha.org) and the ADA has released an information handout for dentists (ada.org).
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the U.S. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html. Accessed March 12, 2020.
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19 Steps to Prevent Illness. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention.html. Accessed March 12, 2020.
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidelines for Infection Control in Dental Health-Care Settings—2003. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5217a1.htm. Accessed March 13, 2020.