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How to prevent a cold? Wash your hands

Today's health tip is cheap, easy, stunningly effective — and involves neither perspiration nor green leafy vegetables.

Go wash your hands.

Right now. Use soap.

And do it again whenever you pick up after the dog, change a diaper or the cat litter, shake hands with a bunch of people, get ready to eat or prepare a meal, or take out your contact lenses — and for heaven's sake certainly whenever you use the restroom.

And I don't mean just passing one hand under the faucet on your way to the door.

Maybe I sound like your mother. But I also sound like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization, and the county health inspectors who check out our restaurants and plenty of other smart people who cannot comprehend why we all won't do something so simple, yet so powerful.

Global Hand Washing Day (really!) was Monday, and when you consider the evidence it's a wonder we don't have Hand Washing Awareness Month with soapy white ribbons festooning every available surface:

• The CDC says a leading contributor to the 1.7 million health care-associated infections every year in the United States is, you got it, poor hand washing.

• In China, Colombia and Egypt, hand-washing campaigns cut primary school absenteeism due to diarrhea and respiratory infections by as much as 50 percent in recent years. Wonder what such an effort would do here?

• Flu season is upon us, and in addition to a flu shot, hand washing is among our best defenses.

• Yet a recent survey found four in 10 adults don't wash up after sneezing, coughing or blowing their nose. A third of men and a fifth of women don't wash up after using the restroom.

• Even health care providers have been known to skimp on hand washing. Hospitals are forever trying new ways to remind staff, but in the meantime always insist that anyone who walks into a loved one's hospital room wash up first (hand sanitizer is fine, too).

I started thinking a lot about hand washing on a recent day, before lunch with friends at Meze 119, a fine vegetarian bistro in St. Petersburg.

I went to wash my hands before lunch (naturally!) and was greeted in the restroom by a familiar tune.

I thought it was the Beatles classic about hand-holding, but some clever person had refashioned the chorus to say, "You better wash your HAAAANDS!''

Dean Hershkowitz, general manager and sometime-chef at the restaurant his family owns, told me later that he has collected songs about hand-washing to play in the restroom since getting the idea from a South Florida restaurant. He even has had customers ask him to burn discs.

Yes, the songs are a lot more fun than those "employees must wash hands'' signs, but they're also a firm way to stress the message for customers, too.

After lunch, I went back to work. Within an hour, I received an alert from the health department: viral meningitis was reported at a local elementary school.

This is not, fortunately, the fungal meningitis we've read so much about in connection with contaminated steroid injections, nor is it as serious as bacterial meningitis.

But it's not good. And, says the CDC, it's most commonly caused by enteroviruses, which can be spread when someone changes a diaper or uses the toilet and doesn't wash up properly.

So, one more time: Go wash your hands.

Charlotte can be reached at sutton@tampabay.com or follow her on Twitter @SuttonTimes.

Charlotte Sutton I Health and medicine editor

Terry Tomalin I Outdoors/fitness editor

Jan Brackett I Designer

Eve Edelheit I Cover photo

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How to prevent a cold? Wash your hands

10/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 19, 2012 4:30am]
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