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Mayo Clinic Q&A: handwashing's benefits; decongestant downsides


Handwashing is said to be the best way to prevent illness. But how often is it enough? I have small children, and I want to keep them as healthy as possible. Is hand sanitizer a good alternative to soap and water?

Handwashing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and to keep from spreading illness, but there's no magic number for how often you should wash. Just try to make sure your hands are consistently clean. Soap and water always work well. If you don't have access to a sink, hand sanitizer is a good choice.

Bacteria, viruses and other germs surround us every day and live in the same environments we do. As you touch objects, surfaces and other people, germs can be transferred to your hands. When you then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, the germs can get inside your body and potentially make you sick. Cleaning your hands gets rids of the germs, lowering your risk for illness.

Although there isn't a specific number of times you should clean your hands each day, there are certain situations where cleaning your hands is essential. Make sure you, and your children, always clean your hands before you eat, after you use the bathroom and after you come in contact with surfaces that are likely to be contaminated with germs.

When people think of areas in the home where the most germs live, bathrooms usually comes to mind first. Although handwashing after using the bathroom is important, you're actually more likely to pick up germs that can make you sick in your kitchen.

That's because certain foods, before they are cooked, tend to harbor harmful bacteria, particularly chicken, fish and other meats. When you work with those foods in your kitchen, they can contaminate the surrounding surfaces. Cleaning your hands thoroughly before and after you prepare foods, along with thoroughly cleaning your kitchen countertops, can go a long way to cutting down on the number of germs you carry on your hands.

Washing with soap and water is a quick and easy way to get your hands clean. You may want to avoid antibacterial soap, though. Antibacterial soap is no more effective at killing germs than regular soap. Using antibacterial soap might even lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the product's antimicrobial agents, making it harder to kill those germs in the future.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works just as well as soap and water for cleaning your hands, as long as your hands aren't visibly dirty. For example, if you've been gardening or working on a motor vehicle, then you need soap and water. For most other situations, hand sanitizer is fine.

Put about a quarter-sized amount of the sanitizer on your hands and work it in, covering all the surfaces. When the alcohol is dry, your hands are clean. If you're cleaning your hands quite often during the day, hand sanitizer may be a better choice than soap and water because the sanitizers usually have moisturizers, so they tend to be gentler on your hands than soap and water.

Getting into the habit of cleaning your hands regularly can have significant benefits. Studies have shown that in communities where children are encouraged to wash their hands often, illnesses and absenteeism in schools go down, and the risk of getting diarrhea or a respiratory infection is reduced by about 30 percent.

Priya Sampathkumar, M.D., Infectious Diseases, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.


I've heard that nonprescription decongestants can have significant side effects. Is this true?

While many people rely on nasal decongestants to help ease symptoms of a cold or flu, these medications can sometimes cause more harm than good, especially if taken repeatedly. Examples of commonly used decongestants include phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Often, these ingredients are included in multisymptom cold and flu preparations, such as Maximum Strength Mucinex D, Robitussin Multi-Symptom Cold, and Tylenol Sinus Congestion & Pain.

Taking a decongestant can temporarily ease congestion, but it can also create a slight increase in your blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, especially if it's not controlled, this may be a concern. Decongestants also can interfere with the effectiveness of certain blood pressure medications. If you're on blood pressure medication, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking a nasal decongestant.

Extended-release decongestants may be less likely to raise blood pressure than the immediate-release kind but can still cause problems. People who have conditions such as diabetes, benign prostatic hyperplasia, ischemic heart problems, thyroid disorders, glaucoma and seizures generally should avoid using nasal decongestants.

In addition, using nonprescription decongestant nasal sprays (Afrin, Dristan, others) for more than three or four days can cause even worse nasal congestion once the decongestant wears off (rebound rhinitis). All too often, people think their colds are getting worse, so they increase their use of nasal spray, leading to a downward spiral of medication use and worsening congestion. Other occasional side effects of nasal sprays may include nosebleeds, agitation and insomnia.

Thankfully, symptoms usually last no more than a week and a half. If you have continued congestion, it may be time to visit your doctor to explore treatment options that may be more effective.

Lisa Buss Preszler, Pharm.D., R.Ph., Mayo Clinic Pharmacy, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

Mayo Clinic Q & A is an educational resource and doesn't replace regular medical care. E-mail a question to MayoClinicQ& For more information, visit © 2015 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. All rights reserved.

Mayo Clinic Q&A: handwashing's benefits; decongestant downsides 12/10/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2015 5:01pm]
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