Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies


Wash your hands to keep bugs at bay

Close up of hand painting - information on hand washing to prevent illness

Now that winter has arrived, you're likely to be surrounded by people coughing, sneezing and sniffing. To keep the bugs at bay, did you know that washing your hands regularly is the most effective thing you can do?

Hand washing with soap and water has been considered an important step in maintaining personal hygiene for hundreds of years. It's ingrained in many religious and cultural habits. However, the link between hand washing and the spread of infection was only established 200 years ago.

Why is hand washing so important?

Your hands come into contact with germs every time you touch a surface, object or person. The common cold, flu, norovirus and impetigo are just some of the viruses, bacteria and infections that can be picked up by your hands. They can then enter your body when you touch your eyes, nostrils or mouth.

When should I wash your hands?

Although it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help limit infection. Wash your hands after using the toilet and before eating, as well as after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

Get into the practice of washing your hands regularly throughout the day, whether you’re at home or work. Remember to wash your hands before and after touching any cuts or grazes and after handling animals.

Young children are particularly at risk of catching and spreading infections. Encourage your child to wash their hands after using the toilet, before eating and especially after coughing or sneezing.

How should I wash my hands?

Wash your hands with soap and warm water. Using soap is especially important because it removes germs more effectively than washing your hands with just water.

It only takes a couple of minutes and five simple steps to wash your hands properly.

  1. Wet your hands with warm water and apply soap.
  2. Rub your hands palm to palm.
  3. Rub the back of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  5. Dry your hands thoroughly using a clean towel or air dry – this will prevent your hands from becoming chapped.

What should I do if you don’t have access to soap and water?

If you don’t have access to soap and water, you can use an alcohol hand rub (or hand sanitizers) to clean your hands. Hand sanitizers should contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective at removing germs. However, hand sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. Therefore, never replace hand washing by using a hand sanitizer if water and soap is available.

When using an alcohol hand rub, apply the gel to the palm of your hand and rub your hands together. Make sure the gel covers every area including your thumbs, fingers, between your fingers and the back of your hands. Continue rubbing until your hands are dry.

Make it habit

Getting into the habit of washing your hands will not only reduce your risk of picking up bugs this winter, but all year round. Pass on your good habits to your family and make time to teach your children from a young age how to wash their hands. Make it fun – get some coloured soaps, a step for them to reach the sink and a star chart to use as a reward.

The history of hand washing

Hand washing was first proven to be effective at preventing infection in 1847 by Dr Ignaz Semmelweis. He found that ‘child bed’ (or puerperal) fever could be spread through poor hand hygiene, and regular hand washing among medical staff helped limit infection.

Further research over the years continued to support the importance of hand washing. This led to the first national hand hygiene guidelines being published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the 1980s.

Today, hospitals and public health authorities around the world are encouraged to promote good hand hygiene. Since 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) has run annual global campaigns to encourage and promote hand washing.

We would really value your thoughts on the article you have just read. Please complete our short survey to help us improve our articles.

Produced by Nargis Mandry, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2013.

Read more Bupa health articles

Find out about our health editors

Share with others

More on Bupa health assessments.

More on Bupa health assessments.

Bupa health insurance

Award winning UK
health insurer

Get a quote
Find out more