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December 3, 2008 > Protect Yourself from the Flu and Stay Healthy All Yearlong

Protect Yourself from the Flu and Stay Healthy All Yearlong

Handwashing Awareness Week Focuses on Preventing the Spread of Disease

The cold and flu season may be here, but that doesn't mean you have to get sick. You can significantly improve your odds of staying well by washing your hands frequently and following other flu prevention tips. That's the message behind Handwashing Awareness Week, December 7-13.

Handwashing is the single most important way to prevent the spread of infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Germs, including viruses that cause diseases like the flu, can end up on people's hands and are transferred to surfaces like store counters, door knobs, shopping carts and ATM machines, where they are picked up by others who touch those surfaces.

"Handwashing interrupts the transmission of disease," said Marilyn Khalaji, RN, CIC, quality control coordinator at Washington Hospital. "It breaks the chain of infection by washing the viruses down the drain."

While many of the germs found on your hands do not cause illness, a recent study by the University of Colorado-Boulder shows just how much your hands can pick up. Researchers there swabbed 102 human palms and found more than 4,700 species of bacteria.

The CDC recommends washing your hands before eating; before, during and after handling or preparing food; after contact with blood or body fluids (like vomit, secretions from your nose, or saliva); after changing a diaper; after you use the bathroom; after handling animals and their toys, leashes, or waste; after touching something that could be contaminated ( such as a trash can, cleaning rag, or soil); before dressing a wound, giving medicine, or inserting contact lenses; and more often when someone in the home or office is sick.

"It's really important to get into the habit of washing your hands regularly so you can stay healthy all yearlong," Khalaji said. "We have to get the little ones trained at a young age so when they grow up they are already in the habit. It is so important to controlling the spread of disease."

Proper handwashing includes wetting your hands with warm water, applying soap, and rubbing your hands together vigorously for at least 15 seconds. It takes that long for the soap and scrubbing action to dislodge and remove stubborn germs. Then rinse hands under running water for a few seconds.

"Hand sanitizer also works well in place of soap and water," Khalaji said. "If the hands are not actually soiled, hand sanitizer works as well as soap and water."

Influenza is a Serious Disease

Protecting yourself from influenza, also known as the flu, is important because the flu can be serious. Not only can it keep you from work and daily routines, it can also put you in the hospital and even cause death. The frail elderly and people with chronic illnesses like asthma and heart disease are most at risk from serious complications. About 36,000 people in the U.S. die from the flu every year, according to the CDC.

The flu is a contagious respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses. Symptoms include fever, headache, extreme fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and stomach problems such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

The flu virus spreads from person to person through coughing and sneezing or touching surfaces infected with flu virus and then touching the nose or mouth. Most healthy adults can infect others a day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick.

The best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get an influenza vaccination. The flu shot uses inactive or killed flu viruses and has been approved for children and adults, including people with chronic medical conditions. A nasal-spray flu vaccine is also available, but it is only recommended for healthy people ages 2 to 49 because it is made with live, weakened flu viruses.

In addition to washing your hands frequently and getting a flu shot, the following tips can prevent the spread of colds and flu:
* Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
* If possible, stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick.
* Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
* Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
* Practice good health habits like getting plenty of sleep and physical activity, managing your stress, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious foods.

To learn more about influenza or preventing the spread of infectious disease, visit

For more information about Washington Hospital and its programs and services, visit

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