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Sick man laying on a couch.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Prepare for battle. Handwashing is the first line of defense in avoiding illnesses. With the coronavirus (COVID-19), the respiratory disease first identified in China, making its way into national headlines, handwashing is now even more important.

Janet Johnson, an Alabama Extension food safety and quality regional agent, said handwashing is an easy step to help reduce people’s exposure to harmful germs and to avoid getting sick.

“Regular handwashing is one of the best ways to remove germs and prevent spreading germs to others,” Johnson said. “It’s quick and simple.”

Effective Techniques

Because viral illnesses like COVID-19 and the flu can be spread through touch, proper hand washing can reduce their spread. Johnson emphasized to be most effective, handwashing must include some important steps.

“A quick pass with some soap and a little water is not effective and just doesn’t get the job done,” she said. “Research shows that washing hands for at least 20 seconds removes more germs than washing for briefer amounts of time.”

Johnson said effective handwashing includes five steps.

  • Wet hands with clean, running warm water and apply soap.
  • Lather hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of hands, between fingers and under nails.
  • Scrub hands for at least 20 seconds. Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice for an easy way to time.
  • Rinse hands well under clean, running warm water.
  • Dry hands using a clean towel or air dry them.  (Note: Air drying means using a warm or room temperature blow dryer.)

When to Wash

“People should wash their hands frequently,” Johnson said. “If you wonder should I wash my hands now, the answer is always yes.”

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

More Information

More information about handwashing and corresponding photos of proper techniques is in the Alabama Extension publication Illness Prevention: It’s in Your Hands. For further information, visit www.aces.edu or contact your county Extension office.

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