NPS MedicineWise recommends regular hand washing to stop spread of bacterial infections

Hand hygiene is in the spotlight as a way of preventing the spread of infection, with Antibiotic Awareness Week kicking off next week (14-20 November 2016).

During the global Antibiotic Awareness Week, NPS MedicineWise will be reminding Australians that regular hand washing is an important part of preventing illness and stopping the spread of infection-causing bacteria—and that less bacterial infection can reduce the need for antibiotics.

Simple soap and water is best

NPS MedicineWise medical adviser Dr Jeannie Yoo says that regular hand washing using soap and water is a simple action to help stop the spread of bacterial infections.

“For adults and children moving about in the community, washing with simple soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs on hands, in most situations,” says Dr Yoo.

“Although the soap and water doesn’t kill them, washing your hands using the correct technique for at least 30 seconds physically removes the majority of bacteria and other germs from your skin.”

If soap and water are not available, the next best option is an alcohol-based sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Hand washing can reduce illness

President of the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control, Professor Ramon Shaban says that hand washing is a highly effective way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases that are spread by contact, such as diarrhoeal and respiratory infections.

“There is strong evidence that hand washing and hand hygiene is effective in reducing the spread of organisms that cause infection and disease. Removing the organisms using soap and water, and in some instances destroying them with alcohol-based hand rub solutions, is fundamental to breaking the chain of infection and to ensuring good health for individuals and communities,” he says.

Antibacterial soap has disadvantages as well as being ineffective

Antibacterial hand soaps have become commonly available in recent years but emerging evidence now shows that antibacterial chemicals can affect the balance of bacteria in your gut, and also may make bacteria more resistant to some antibiotics.

Resistance to common antibacterial ingredients such as triclosan and triclocarban—and cross-resistance to antimicrobials have been consistently demonstrated in laboratory settings.

The benefits of antibacterial hand soaps have also been called into question following the ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on antibacterial agents triclosan and triclocarban from over-the-counter antibacterial hand and body washes in September 2016.

“There is little evidence that the addition of antibacterials to over-the-counter soaps and other types of cleaners wards off infection better than regular neutral soap,” says Dr Yoo.

“Although antibacterial hand soaps contain low concentrations of ingredients that can kill bacteria, they are only effective when used during long washes of over 30 seconds, multiple times a day, and for days at a time. But we know that most people only wash their hands for a few seconds.

“By going overboard and trying to establish a sterile environment we may actually be increasing the population of bacteria that are highly resistant to antibacterials and, possibly, to antibiotics.

“This Antibiotic Awareness Week, we want people to think of antibiotics as a precious resource, and to do everything they can—such as good old-fashioned hand washing with plain soap and water—to prevent infections in the first place.”

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