Why Hand-washing is Important

Shannon Dowler

by Shannon Dowler

Only a few weeks ago North Carolina’s newly elected senator, Thom Tillis, made national headlines for his comments about hand-washing being required in the restaurant industry.

While I won’t get into the politics of over-regulation, his statement gives me a great reason to remind readers why hand-washing is so important. What follows are ten common infections that are caused and spread by human feces in the hope that you will concentrate your efforts at hand-washing.

Top 10 Reasons to Wash Your Hands Thoroughly After Going to the Toilet

10. Norovirus, the leading cause of contaminated food disease outbreaks in the U.S., causes more than 19 million cases of gastroenteritis every year in the US. It is often severe and causes vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration.

9. Salmonella, a common cause of “food poisoning,” affects over 1.2 million people in the U.S. each year, causing over 19,000 hospitalizations. Effects include vomiting, fever, body aches, and diarrhea (sometimes bloody); causes include improper food handling, preparation, and storage.

Typhoid Fever, also caused by Salmonella, is a problem world-wide, but 70% of cases diagnosed in the U.S. were acquired while traveling internationally. Typhoid causes a severe illness that can last a month or even become chronic. There were over 160,000 deaths from typhoid fever in the world last year.

8. Coxsackievirus, or “Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease,” common in infants and young children, is highly contagious in childcare settings. It causes painful ulcers and fever and can lead to severe dehydration and hospitalization.

7. Cholera is a life-threatening diarrheal illness caused by contaminated water and food.

6. Shigella causes bloody diarrhea that targets toddler aged children most severely.

5. E. coli is another cause of bloody diarrhea; the bacteria can still be found in the stool for months after infection.

4. Hepatitis A, though less common in the U.S. since a vaccine was introduced, causes an infection that can last from one to six months and is a cause of significant disability.

3. Poliovirus, a deadly disease that can be prevented with vaccines, has experienced resurgence around the globe. As the U.S. continues struggling with decreasing vaccine acceptance, it has the potential to come back in the US as well.

2. Rotavirus, now preventable with vaccine now, still causes almost half a million doctor visits every year in children under five and causes often severe illness with fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.

1. Ascariasis, also known as “worms,” spreads from the same fecal-oral route as the above infections. The eggs develop into intestinal parasites that can cause fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea and malnutrition but the infection is asymptomatic in 85% of cases!

How difficult is it to add a minute in your routine after going to the bathroom? These easy steps, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control—“Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry”—have been shown to significantly decrease transmitting infections to other people. You could remember it with this clever mnemonic: We Love Stopping Real Diseases!

The truth is, 2.2 million children around the world die each year from diarrheal illness; one in three of those lives could have been saved by good hand-washing with soap and water, preventing the illness in the first place.

So, regardless of whether you believe in more or less government involvement, I think science and reason all meet together in the center. Washing hands saves lives!


Dr. Dowler is a Family Physician with Blue Ridge Community Health Services, a community health center that provides affordable, quality health care to all. She serves as a board member for the Western Carolina Medical Society. When not busy washing her hands, Dr. Dowler enjoys clinical practice, advocacy, and public speaking.

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