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With cold and flu season still going strong for another few weeks, and a new strain of the norovirus making the rounds, everyone who doesn’t spend all of their time in a hermetically sealed bubble is trying to avoid catching some type of nasty bug between now and the arrival of Spring. Outbreaks of the norovirus, which causes intestinal illnesses, often occurs in schools and nursing homes, which makes the virus a big risk for parents, teachers, and health care workers.

So while everyone strives to stay germ free, what’s the best way to avoid infection? Public health experts recommend that people thoroughly wash their hands before eating or touching their mouth or eyes, and to use hand sanitizers frequently throughout the day.

Yet despite this recommendation, a recent study has found that health care professionals working in long-term care facilities that used hand sanitizers in lieu of washing their hands actually experienced more cases of norovirus-related illness.

The results of this study now call into question whether hand sanitizers can effectively prevent the spread of germs, and whether people should still rely on their use to prevent infection. With this in mind, here’s what you need to know about whether hand sanitizers actually work.

Hand Sanitizers: The Basics

The majority of hand sanitizers contain some type of alcohol, such as ethyl alcohol, which acts as an antiseptic and active ingredient that kills germs. The other ingredients usually found in hand sanitizers include glycerin, fragrance, and water.

According to studies conducted by the Infectious Diseases Study of America, the alcohol used in hand sanitizers should help to prevent most viral and bacterial infections, with very few exceptions. While hand sanitizes won’t work against infections caused by bacterium like C. difficile, which can cause a life-threatening colon infection, they should provide ample protection against cold and flu causing viruses.

Should You Still Trust Hand Sanitizers?

Despite the findings of this most recent study, researchers at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have not changed their recommendation that people continue to use hand sanitizer as a means of decreasing their risk of infection.

The study, which was published in the American Journal of Infection Control, examined the use of hand sanitizers by staff members in 91 long-term health care centers across the country. In the long-term facilities where staff members were more likely to use a sanitizer than spend time washing their hands, the risk of an outbreak of norovirus occurring was almost six times greater than for staffs that regularly washed their hands.

However, before you throw out your bottles of hand sanitizer in frustration, researchers at the CDC cautioned that the result of one study isn’t enough to completely discount the use of sanitizers. More research needs to be given to the use of hand sanitizers before health experts agree that they no longer offer additional protection against disease and infection.

What Offers More Protection- Hand Washing or Using a Sanitizer?

When it comes to preventing the spread of disease and infection, nothing beats the use of soap and water. For the most effective prevention of the spread of viruses and bacterial infections, you need to use a combination of both hand washing and the use of a sanitizer, according to researchers at the American Cleaning Institute.

The use of hand sanitizers are meant to supplement, not replace, hand washing. Washing your hands still remains the best way to prevent illness, especially before eating, preparing food, or after changing a diaper and using the restroom.

Timothy Lemke is a freelance health writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Benjamin Crusan, a Ridgefield, WA dentist.


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