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Healthy Outlook

Don't get caught dirty-handed

By Vanessa Cordier, REHS

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's a disgusting experience we've all had to stomach: You're out in public and someone nearby forgets to cover their coughs or sneezes. As obviously gross as this situation is, there's an even more infectious and less obvious way germs are finding their way into your body.

It's true: Dirty hands can be as riddled with germs as any used tissue or piece of spoiled food. And they can spread those germs just as easily as and even more discreetly than a cough or a sneeze.

We saw how true this is in June at the California Pizza Kitchen in Walnut Creek. The failure of several employees to wash their hands before handling food resulted not only in a temporary closure of that restaurant, but more than 130 reported cases of norovirus—a stomach bug that causes days of diarrhea and vomiting.

As basic as it seems, proper handwashing is enormously effective at stopping the spread of germs. Large-scale handwashing campaigns in response to disease outbreaks—such as the flu—have not only proved effective in reducing the target disease, but other diseases as well.

Sadly, the California Pizza Kitchen incident is not all that uncommon. The rate of handwashing violations during restaurant inspections has held steady since 2007. Restaurants aren't alone. We've seen illness outbreaks related to unclean hands occur at schools, health care facilities and in the home.

Handwashing isn't just for the sick. Our hands touch hundreds—if not thousands—of surfaces daily. There's no telling what germs are on these surfaces or who touched them before you.

Bacteria reproduce at a blinding rate, so the longer you wait to wash your hands the greater the chances are that bacteria will contaminate surfaces and objects or enter your body. There are millions of germs on our hands and, of course, not all of them are bad.

The best way to get rid of those bad germs while keeping the good ones is to wash with soap and water. Hand sanitizers are good when you're on the go, but they're largely ineffective on visibly dirty hands and they do nothing for some viruses, like norovirus.

Properly washing your hands means scrubbing with warm water and soap for at least 15-20 seconds (about the time it takes to hum the Happy Birthday song twice). Afterward, make sure to rinse and use a clean paper towel or single-use towel whenever possible.

You should always wash your hands:

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for and cleaning up after someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching an animal or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

So wash your hands often with soap and water; germs are lurking and they won't tip you off with the sound of a sneeze or the hack of a cough. Get more handwashing tips at

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author
Ms. Cordier is a Supervising Environmental Health Specialist with the Environmental Health Division of Contra Costa Health Services.