Holiday gatherings offer incredible opportunities to come together with friends and family to create lasting memories. However, with these good times comes a higher chance of catching a cold, the flu or even viruses.

This season, make sure you’re not sharing germs along with memories.

One of the most important ways to stop the spread of disease is also the simplest: hand washing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, hand washing saves lives by stopping the spread of germs. In fact, approximately 20% of pediatric pneumonia cases and almost one-third of childhood stomach viruses could be prevented just through good hand hygiene.

Throughout the day, our hands gather germs. When we shake hands, turn a doorknob, use a keyboard, touch a surface or pet an animal, we pick up microbes which can be spread to others.

Many of us wash our hands before, during, and after preparing food, but we should do so at other times as well. Other times you should be particularly conscientious is when changing contact lenses, after blowing your nose, after handling pets or even pet food or treats, and of course, when handling garbage, using the restroom or changing a diaper. Furthermore, it is essential to wash your hands before or after helping a spouse, grandchild or another person who is ill so that you can limit other people’s exposure to contagious diseases.

However, to truly limit the spread of germs, it’s important to follow the recommended guidelines.

• Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.

• Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

• Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.

• Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

• Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Hand sanitizers can be an acceptable alternative to hand washing in certain circumstances, such as when soap and water aren’t available. If you do use a hand sanitizer, make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol. Also, follow these easy steps to clean your hands.

• Apply the gel product to the palm of one hand. Check the label to find out the appropriate amount.

• Rub your hands together.

• Spread the gel over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

Be aware, though, hand sanitizers can’t neutralize all microbes. Some germs like Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea, are best addressed with effective hand washing.

As you spread the joy with your loved ones this season, be sure to keep the germs at bay with proper hand washing. Happy and healthy holidays to all!

Gitanjali Pai, M.D., AAHIVS, is a Stilwell-based physician. This column is part of Oklahoma State Medical Association’s ongoing mission to encourage better health for all Oklahomans.

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