Why is handwashing important?

By Professor Ash Soni, President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Every day we carry millions of bacteria, some of which are naturally found on our bodies and some of which are germs that can make us ill or infect others.

Every day we have contact with people who don’t always wash their hands after going to the toilet, or preparing food.

Our survey on handwashing shows 84% of British adults don’t wash their hands for long enough to clean them of bacteria which can cause infections such as upset stomachs or pneumonia, or viruses which can cause colds and flu.

Regular handwashing with soap and water is the single best way to protect yourself and others from infections. The recommended time to spend washing your hands is 20 seconds, as long as it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday to you’ twice.

You need to wash not just the palms but the back of your hands and between the fingers too. Take a look at these pictures to see the most effective way to wash your hands.

Over the winter there is an increase in the prescribing of antibiotics for infections, some of which could have been prevented by simply washing our hands. Prescribing too many antibiotics is a major cause of antibiotic resistance. This means that bacteria become resistant to the drugs used to kill them, which is now a major threat to all of us and the health of future generations.

It’s easy to pick up an infection and people often visit their GP to ask for antibiotics because they think they are not getting better quickly enough, yet infections can be expected to last longer than you might think:

  • Sore throat               7-8 days
  • Ear infection             8 days
  • Common cold            14 days
  • Sinusitis                     14-21 days
  • Cough or bronchitis  21 days

Your local pharmacist can advise you about the natural course of your infection and the best way to manage it, reducing unnecessary GP appointments and requests for antibiotics.

The only way to change things is to start with our own behaviour. Get into the habit of washing your hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap and water and you’ll be reducing the number of times you, and those you come into contact with – friends, family, workmates – become unwell.

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