Making hand hygiene a habit for health: Keeping the germs at bay


On World Hand Hygiene Day this Sunday 5 May, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (the Commission) urges Australians to continue to practise good hand hygiene as the first-line defence to reduce the spread of harmful germs.

Practising good hand hygiene remains as important as ever, according to infectious diseases physician Professor Peter Collignon AM, Senior Medical Advisor for the Commission.

“Some people may have become complacent with how often and how well they wash their hands, by not using enough soap and water, doing it too quickly or not hand washing at all,” said Professor Collignon.

“World Hand Hygiene Day reminds us that we need to remain diligent about washing our hands properly.

“Hand washing should matter to all of us because it is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of germs and disease – particularly to reduce infections caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA or ‘golden staph’.

“Hand hygiene also decreases the risk of infection for us in everyday life in the community because it stops the spread of other bacteria that get onto our hands. There are many germs that can cause serious infections that you can pass on to those around you,” Professor Collignon explained.

“E. coli which is a common cause of urinary tract and intra-abdominal infections, Streptococcus which commonly causes skin infections, and community strains of Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph) are just some of many examples of common germs that are a danger to us all.”

Good hand hygiene also helps reduce the spread of germs that cause gastroenteritis and contributes to reducing the risk of respiratory infections such as influenza and coronavirus.

Professor Collignon said the vigilance of some Australians around hand hygiene may have waned since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic shone a spotlight on the role of personal hygiene, including hand washing, but it’s vital we keep reminding people to do it regularly because it is such an easy way to fight germs.”

Effective hand hygiene reduces the transmission of microorganisms such as MRSA that cause infections in hospitals. These healthcare-associated infections affect more than 81,000 Australians each year.

Across Australia, it is encouraging that staff in our hospitals continue to exceed the national benchmark of 80% compliance with hand hygiene requirements, with the latest data showing almost 90% compliance.

“Hand hygiene should be an everyday routine habit – whether you are at home, in hospital, attending healthcare appointments or out and about in the community,” said Professor Collignon.

“Using good old-fashioned soap and water is the best way to remove bacteria and viruses from your skin. But if you’re busy in transit, travelling or a health worker, hand sanitiser or alcohol rub is a great alternative.

“We all have the power to protect ourselves, our loved ones, people we care for, those around us and those who are vulnerable. Hand hygiene keeps the germs at bay – why wouldn’t you make the effort?”

When is it important to lather up?

“Hand hygiene matters all the time – especially to protect people who are sick or feeling unwell and vulnerable people in our communities – and when we travel on planes or public transport, or gather with large groups of people, Professor Collignon said.

“If you are a health or aged care worker, or carer, it’s important to be vigilant with hand washing because there is a high risk of transferring germs, especially superbugs, to your family and people you know.

“In healthcare settings, washing your hands properly improves patient outcomes by reducing transmission of germs – including those resistant to antimicrobials – and reducing healthcare-associated infections.

“While we tend to focus on hand hygiene for the prevention on the spread of superbugs, we should continue to be careful about hand hygiene to help prevent the spread of other infections, such as respiratory infections and gastroenteritis. It is a basic personal hygiene habit and important for food safety.”

Other steps you can take to protect people

Hand hygiene complements other ways to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses, including vaccination against influenza and COVID-19, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your inner elbow, placing used tissues in the bin immediately, and staying home and away from other people when you are not well.

“As well as cleaning your hands regularly, if you want to give yourself and others some extra protection, you can consider wearing a mask in crowded indoor public places and on public transport. This is important if you have respiratory symptoms and must go out. Also consider wearing a mask if you or someone you care for are vulnerable to infection,” Professor Collignon explained.

It is also good practice to regularly clean your phone and other frequently used equipment such as computers. Remember to wash your hands before using your phone if you have been to the toilet or have been coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

“The evidence is clear that hand hygiene – when used together with other infection control interventions such as wearing masks in some circumstances and staying home when unwell – helps to stop the spread of infections and germs,” he added.

1 WHAT – Soap and water or alcohol-based handrub are both effective ways to clean your hands.
2 WHERE – It is vital to wash your hands wherever you are, but it may be easier to use hand sanitisers when out and about. Always before eating/drinking, and especially when in hospital settings and when travelling.
3 WHEN – If your hands are visibly dirty or contaminated or soiled with blood or other body fluids, use soap and water. Always wash your hands (or use alcohol hand rubs) before eating or drinking, and regularly use the 5 Moments for Hand Hygiene when visiting or working in healthcare facilities.
4 HOW – Wash your hands with cold or warm water. Water that’s too hot can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin irritation or infection. Or use alcohol hand hygiene products.
5 WHY – You can’t see germs on your hands after contact with other people, surfaces and coughs and sneezes. So wash your hands even when they are visibly clean, and if you can’t access water and a sink, use an alcohol-based handrub to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

Website | + posts

Ritchelle is a Content Producer for Healthcare Channel, Australia’s premier resource of information for healthcare.

Next Up