Stay away from infections

Maintaining a high standard of personal hygiene is the most effective way to avoid infections

CleaningCan something as fundamental as washing hands or cleaning your counter-top actually reduce your trips to the doctor's clinic? Read on to find out...

We learn about basic hygiene right from school. But with our lives becoming hi-tech, we question the effectiveness of these simple measures to keep ourselves and our family disease-free.

Why is hygiene essential?

In the developing world, roughly 40 per cent of deaths are attributed to infectious diseases. Gastrointestinal infections [which could be food- or water-borne] are rampant in developed as well as developing countries, majority of which could be prevented through good hygiene. Many respiratory and food-borne infections are now known to be of viral origin. Since antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, prevention is the only route. Certain pathogens are now being discovered as causative factors in cancer and chronic degenerative diseases, for e.g. H.Pylori and Hepatitis B virus. Our lifestyle and increasing travel throughout the world has shrunken the globe making it easy for transmission of pathogens. Hence, immense importance is given to improve home and personal hygiene.

HOME HYGIENE

Home hygiene is about tidying the hotspots of our home. This is an effective way to stop transmission of virus and bacteria to potential victims, thereby preventing illness. This doesn't mean going overboard stocking different disinfectants at every corner of the house, and driving ourselves crazy with home-cleaning. It is all about keeping the right places hygienically clean.

Some specific targets are:

Toilets and washrooms

This is one area which, due to dampness and disposal of human waste, is a stronghold for bacteria. Wash the basins, toilet bowls, rims and covers with strong disinfectant at least 1-2 times a week. Wipe the contact surfaces with disinfectant sprays daily.

Every time a toilet is flushed, faecal matter and bacteria spray 20 ft in air. Make sure your toothbrush, hand-towel and soap are not in the firing line by keeping them in closed cabinets or by flushing with the lid closed. Sanitise your toothbrush daily by rinsing it with peroxide or mouthwash. Yes, the germs on your toothbrush are your own, but they can multiply enormously between uses.

At least one million skin cells are sloughed off each hour, so you can imagine the kind of cell debris on our bath towels. Instead of leaving them in the damp bathroom, dry them out in the sun after use and replace them at least once in three days. Use lighter towels that dry quickly.

Cleaning cloths

It is best to use disposable mops for cleaning. But in India, the paper-towel culture has not yet taken over and often cloths are used for mopping countertops, floors and other surfaces. These wet cleaning cloths are one of the largest reservoirs of germs.

  • They must be decontaminated every time they contact any contaminated surface or material. The easiest way to sterilise these cloths is to microwave them for one minute at full power or boil them in a pressure cooker.
  • After decontamination, they must be dried out as soon as possible, preferably in the sun, as keeping them in damp condition for long will promote bacterial regrowth.
  • Mops used to clean heavily contaminated areas - such as spills of faeces or vomit - should be cleaned, rinsed with a disinfecting solution, wrung dry and then dried rapidly preferably at elevated temperatures. Better still, use disposable wipes for such infected surfaces.
  • Sponges and scrubbers provide warm and moist conditions that are optimum for bacteria to thrive. They must be replaced every week and regularly cleaned with an anti-bacterial product. When not in use, try to keep sponges and scrubbers as dry as possible.

Homes with young kids

When babies begin crawling, most low-level surfaces are within their reach. The tendency to lick or put things in the mouth during the teething stages only increases the chances of developing gastrointestinal infections. Toys that the kids put into their mouths, cot/crib rails, diaper changing areas and potty training equipments are the key areas to be taken care of. Such toys when shared with other kids increase the chances of bacteria and virus transmission. Preferably, toys should be washed and disinfected. Faeces, urine, nasal discharge and vomit should be immediately cleaned and the cleaning aids disposed.

Homes with pets

  • Keep pets immunised
  • Keep them out of the kitchen and food-handling areas
  • Pets' living quarters and litter boxes must be cleaned on a daily basis. Their faeces must be handled with gloved hands and disposable paper towels, and flushed down the toilet
  • Do not clean their cages or tanks in the kitchen sink
  • Hands must be washed thoroughly with soap after handling pets and their belongings
  • Pets in the house may be a risk to people whose immune systems are already at a low, such as pregnant women.

FOOD HYGIENE

Improper cooking, temperature-factors and food-handling techniques account for a majority of the food-borne infections. Here are some simple tips that can help prevent such infections.

Food preparation

Certain foods such as raw eggs, poultry, meat and fish have a higher risk of being contaminated and spreading the germs via kitchen surfaces. Vegetables - such as spinach and root vegetables - that have soil sticking to them are also at high risk for contamination.

The materials used in food preparation, such as the chopping board and knives, must be washed with soap and water. Separate boards must be used for raw meats and vegetables/fruits. Hands must be washed immediately after handling raw foods.

Food storage

Cooked food that is leftover or not going to be eaten immediately should be cooled and then refrigerated or frozen, preferably in air tight containers. The ideal temperature of a refrigerator should be between 4 -7 degrees celsius and a freezer at -18oC.

Refrigerator surfaces should be regularly decontaminated by cleaning and chemical disinfection.

Frozen food must be thawed and brought to a boiling temperature before serving it again.

PERSONAL HYGIENE

Hand-washing

Hands are the most common transmitting agents in the cycle of infection. Hands are potential disease-transmitting agents, to anyone who is next in their line of contact. Hand-washing works wonders in cutting the line of transmission and all it needs is soap and running water. Wash for 30-45 seconds, scrubbing between fingers and under nails.

When is it most important to wash hands?

[According to IFH guidelines]

  • Before eating/cooking/handling food
  • After using the toilet
  • After handling pets, their cages, feeding utensils or other pet objects.
  • After coming into contact with body fluids, such as nasal secretions, saliva and vomit or after changing nappies.
  • After contact with a potentially contaminated reservoir site [e.g. a drain] or disseminator [e.g. a wet-cleaning cloth].
  • Whenever hands are visibly dirty.
  • Before giving or applying medication to another person.
  • Before applying contact lenses.

Drinking water hygiene

  • It is important to wash hands thoroughly before you fill water for cooking or drinking.
  • Periodic cleaning of vessels/containers used to store water is obligatory.
  • Buckets or vessels used for water shortage should be properly covered.
  • Earthen matkas used for drinking purposes must be thoroughly scrubbed everyday, with potable water, before refilling.
  • Water should be stored at home for the shortest possible time.

Following these simple hygiene measures at home will ensure a clean and healthy environment. It will also minimise the spread of infections.

Categorisation of sites and surfaces in the home based on risk assessment

[From the Guidelines for prevention of infection and cross-infection in the domestic environment published by the International Scientific Forum (IFH)]

Category Type of site
Reservoirs Wet sites: toilet bowls, all sink-tubes, plastic washing bowls, draining boards, nappy buckets
Disseminators Wet-cleaning utensils: dish cloths, dish sponges, floor cloths, mops, washing-up brushes , scouring pads.
Bathroom objects: face cloths, bath sponges and cloths, nail brushes, tooth brushes, shower heads, humidifiers.
Contact surfaces Hand contact surfaces: Toilet flush handles, toilet seats, door handles, tap handles, basin and bath surfaces and other household objects which are frequently touched by more than one person such as telephones
Hand and foot contact surfaces: Chopping/cutting boards, kitchen work surfaces, fridge and freezer surface, cooking hob, eating and cooking utensils, baby feeding materials. Objects handled by children such as toys
Drinking water contact surfaces: all underground and roof top reservoirs which receive the municipal supply of drinking water, storage vessels, containers, etc.
Other surfaces All floors [carpeted and non-carpeted], walls and furniture.

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