Health

A NURSE WRITES: Let’s talk about our rough hands | Lost Coast Outpost

A NURSE WRITES: Let’s talk about our rough hands | Lost Coast Outpost

Ignaz Semmelweis, everyone!

It’s time for your monthly column on COVID, and Ignaz Semmelweis is not (yet) Lewis-Lusso’s weird holiday card, but a real health care hero.

Semmelweis! Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whether you’re still worried about COVID, because of it for a myriad of reasons, or you have a thousand-yard blank stare when you have to think about it, I hope you’ll still find value in this quick trip through history.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician in the mid-1800s and noticed a problem in two maternity wards at his teaching hospital. Between 1840 and 1846, the maternal mortality rate in the midwives’ ward was 36 per 1,000 births, while the death rate in the physician’s ward was 98 per 1,000 births.

I won’t resist making a light doctor joke to continue the story: Semmelweis discovered that doctors sometimes delivered babies after performing an autopsy. After the introduction of the hand washing policy (not generally, immediately after autopsy) the death rate of doctors fell to the same level as midwives.

Medical professionals pushed this idea back and forth for a while before finally deciding that regular hand washing was a good idea and making it standard…over a hundred years later in the 1980s!

This is why I get people who don’t fully embrace the COVID protocols like masking, vaccination and ventilation. In fact, if you promise to wash your hands regularly, you’ll be taking the most important step towards not getting sick in most cases. Unfortunately, most of us are BAD about hand hygiene.

Many groups have looked at hand hygiene compliance through surveys and observations. Areas that SHOULD have the highest level of compliance for hand hygiene are health care and food service. It is not offensive to ask your doctor if he has washed his hands. How about the guy making you a sandwich? If you would ask that guy, ask your doctor.

A wise preventionist once told me, “Imagine that everything you touch has ketchup on it, and it will make you wash your hands regularly.”

“But Michelle, WHY do I have to wash my hands???” So how do you think we get germs?

Why do some people always get a sore throat or a cold in winter? Is the weather cold? Going out for a minute without a coat? How about wet hair? Forgot to take vitamin C?

No – colds are caused by viruses, not underdressed or “exposed” to the elements with wet hair. Colds (along with some other nasty viruses) are spread through the stuff that flies out of the nose and mouth of people who have a frequent and sudden urge to sneeze – like when they have a cold.

Some viruses remain viable (live) for hours to days on surfaces. It is recommended to regularly clean or disinfect “high-touch” surfaces. Touch-sensitive surfaces are just that – we touch them all the time – doorknobs, toilet handles, telephones, keyboards, fridge doors, light switches, worktops, etc.

Viruses land on these surfaces or hang on the hands of those who carry them. If you wipe your nose, shake hands with a colleague you haven’t seen in a while, and then grab a cup of coffee from the break room, you’re both completely normal and spreading germs.

I challenged some people during Infection Prevention Week (SO fun!) to “track the germ” or count how many surfaces they touched during the first hour of work. Then I asked them to try to count how many times they touched their faces. There were some surprises. Some studies have shown 23 facial touches per hour! Ahem — I’m glad I often wear goggles and a mask, because I’m probably going to the parts of my face where I’m likely to deposit a germ — my eyes, nose, or mouth.

You probably won’t be able to teach yourself not to touch your face — trust me, I’ve tried. So the next best thing you can do is wash your hands regularly. This will not only keep your hands clean, but also prevent germs on that quality mask you breathe through.

So what are some things that can prevent us from getting sick?

  • Number 1: HAND HYGIENE! Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water — or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer — before and after eating, after using the toilet, after caring for or cleaning up after an animal, child or other dependent or someone who is sick, before, during and after preparing food, before touching your face, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after being in public places, after touching garbage — SO many possibilities!
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that are sensitive to touch (always read the manufacturer’s instructions for use on those cleaning products!)
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid close contact with sick people

If it took you a while to embrace preventive health measures, don’t feel bad—it took doctors over a hundred years to finally wash their hands of it. But now that you know, fall is a great time to start. Stay safe and healthy!

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Michelle Lewis-Lusso (she/her) is an infection prevention and control nurse at United Indian Health Services, serving more than 11,000 clients and staff at their seven clinics. Michelle hopes you wash your hands AND don’t come out with wet hair.



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