Best weapon to fight flu? Wash your hands

The best advice for protecting yourself from any infectious disease, including H1N1, remains the most basic advice: Wash your hands, early and often.

“If you look back at the SARS epidemic and any infectious disease that spread by droplet or contact – sanitize your hands, frequently and effectively. That’s the way the spread of disease has been stopped,” said Jan Larmouth, director of infection control at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center. This advice applies to medical providers as well as ordinary folks. In fact, today is World Hand Hygiene Day, sponsored by the World Health Organization, which is urging hospitals and other facilities around the world to greatly increase their emphasis on hand-washing and other sanitation.

The day has long been planned for the midst of ordinary flu season; the arrival of so-called “swine flu” was coincidental.

As far as hand-washing goes, plain old soap and water is effective, Larmouth said: “The detergent action of the soap lifts bacteria or virus off the surface of your hands and you wash them down the drain.”

Also effective are alcohol-based sanitizers, often in gel form, for when water is not available. These also lift off bacteria and viruses, and also provide some extra action, in that alcohol denatures proteins in viruses and bacteria if properly used.

Not recommended, however, are antibacterial soaps, which have no effect on viruses and in order to effect bacteria must be used with great care, ensuring that the soap is in contact with bacteria for as long as 45 seconds.

“If you don’t need an antibacterial product, don’t use it. Out in the community, regular soap is fine,” Larmouth said.

Even more important than what you use to clean is when you do it. “Wash your hands before you eat, after you go to the bathroom, after you blow your nose,” Larmouth said. “It’s just like your mom told you!”