Published on 07/13/17

Hand-washing is still the best defense against school-year sniffles and sneezes

By Merritt Melancon

For many children, heading back to school in the fall often means heading back to the world of sniffles, sneezes and coughs.

When hundreds of students come together in the same building for the start of the school year, germs and viruses will be around, but that doesn’t mean families need to resign themselves to staying sick.

“Proper hand-washing is one of the best ways to fight infectious diseases, such as colds and the flu as well as foodborne illnesses,” said Judy Harrison, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Parents should encourage regular hand-washing at home and at school to keep both their children and themselves healthy as the school year starts.

Hand-washing can reduce the risk of respiratory infections by 16 percent and reduce deaths from diarrheal disease by up to 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Wash Your Paws, Georgia!” is a hand-washing curriculum developed by UGA Extension. The program teaches proper hand-washing technique and helps educate families, educators and children on the importance of hand-washing. Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agents and Georgia 4-H agents have implemented the program across the state.

The program teaches students the importance of thorough hand-washing. More than 15,000 students, in classrooms and at club meetings, have taken part in the program. 

Hand-washing technique is important, Harrison said, and the CDC and the National Sanitation Foundation recommend a six-step process:

  • Step 1: Wet hands with warm water.
  • Step 2: Apply soap to hands.
  • Step 3: Rub hands together, cleaning between fingers for at least 20 seconds.
  • Step 4: Pay special attention to cleaning around fingernails.
  • Step 5: Rinse the germs away.
  • Step 6: Dry hands on a paper towel or using a hot air dryer, if one is available.

Hand-washing songs can make the process more enjoyable for children and can help enforce proper technique.

“Singing a hand-washing song twice or singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice should take about 20 seconds, the amount of time you should spend washing your hands,” Harrison said.

Entertaining character soap dispensers or a reward system for consistent hand-washing can further enforce the habit, Harrison said. Children should be taught to wash their hands after using the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, after handling animals and before touching food.

Hand sanitizers — those that are at least 60 percent alcohol — can help, but Harrison urges parents not to rely on them alone. Hand sanitizers are not aas effective against visruses as they are against bacteria. 

“Hand-washing is the best defense, but if you don’t have access to soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used,” Harrison said.

Knowing that not everyone will wash their hands means that students, teachers and parents should avoid touching their eyes and mouths before washing their hands so that they avoid introducing new germs into their bodies.

Also, parents, teachers and students should stay home if they are sick and should avoid contact with people for at least 24 hours after fevers subside without the help of fever-reducing medicines, Harrison said.

Covering the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, throwing away the tissue, then washing hands reduces the spread of germs, whether students are at home sick or stuck at school.

For help supporting good hand-washing habits and to learn more about the "Wash Your Paws, Georgia!" curriculum, contact your local UGA Extension office by calling 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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